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The Narrow Aperture


In a TV slot some years ago Robert McKee, best known for his screen-writing manual, Story, did a fifteen minute presentation on the image structure in Chinatown, and believed the genius of the film lay in director Roman Polanski’s working through of essentially symbolic visual language. McKee basically deciphers the film, taking certain recurrent visual motifs, including water, Chinatown and corruption, and the eye, to ‘explain’ the film. What we want to do here is look at an efficient but hardly masterly adaptation of a great book, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and apply the same approach as McKee, while also indicating the limitations of such readings.

Let us propose the image structure here rests on dogs, houses, cars and violation, and illustrate how in the closing scene in the film the four are all brought together, just as McKee believed Polanski brought his image structure together in one key scene when the two leading characters go to bed together. Our central character in Disgrace is Professor David Lurie (John Malkovich), a womanizing figure who quotes Byron’s idea that it is better to murder a baby in its cot than deny one’s own instincts. At the beginning of the film he has just finished a sexual encounter with a prostitute, and shortly after that embarks on a brief affair with a young student, Melanie, a student to whom he gives a seventy percent grade even though she didn’t even write an essay. The affair becomes public and Lurie is forced to resign from his post. From here he leaves the first of our key images, the house, and travels in another, the car, to his daughter’s house in the countryside far from the city.

What is a house, we may ask? It is a protective space, a building that provides shelter, keeps us warm, gives us privacy. The film is full of images of houses and their importance, but they are rarely conducive to the terms applied. When the young student first leaves Lurie’s house she does so through a door which has a wrought iron gate, and then leaves the garden and out onto the street through another wrought iron gate. The city is Cape Town, crime-ridden and socially divided even post-apartheid; houses need not only to be places of security in the general sense of the term, but quite specifically also. In certain cities, in Rio de Janeiro, in Buenos Aires, in Bogota, to make a house secure requires grills, railings, bars.

The urban house in a violent urban centre can be contrasted with that of Lurie’s daughter’s. Lucy’s is a simple home without either ornamentation or safety. When we first see Lucy coming out of her house we can contrast it with Lurie closing the door of his. Lucy has no more than a flimsy wooden door that anybody could enter and exit from. Later in the film, after Lucy has been raped, and Lurie beaten and burnt, a character driving them into town says you need to turn your house into a fortress, and guard it with a gun. The third key house in the film is the one that Lucy’s gardener and helper is building on Lucy’s land. Petrus is an ambivalent figure, according to one of Lucy’s friends he has helped Lucy a great deal over the years; all Lurie can see is someone who wants to steal Lucy’s land.

The second key image concerns cars. The car takes us from one place to another, allows us space and privacy, like the house, and the apparent security a house is also supposed to provide. While in the city the car is probably more an issue of security than luxury, where walking around the city would be dangerous, in the countryside it is a necessity. When David first arrives at his daughter’s house he mentions that he always forgets how far away his daughter lives. But the car is as fragile as a home, as we observe early in the film when David notices his windscreen has been bashed in as rumours spread concerning his affair with Melanie. After his daughter has been raped, the perpetrators steal Lurie’s car and blow out the tyres on the van. When they go to look for a new one, the director even includes a couple of superfluous transition shots of them travelling in the van to the pound to buy another car. Later in the film, when Lurie returns to the city he uses the car to kerb crawl. At one moment shortly afterwards he is sitting in the car looking out onto Cape Town, a moment that suggests contemplation, perhaps even remorse concerning his earlier misdemeanour in the city. Moments later a prostitute lifts her head up from his lap: she’s been administering fellatio.

The third important aspect of the image structure are the dogs. Man’s best friend, of course, but also potentially another’s worst enemy as people use them not only as pets for affectionate use, but also as guard dogs for protective purposes. Dogs in Disgrace serve an ambivalent and multi-faceted purpose. At the local veterinary clinic, there are dozen of dogs in kennels out the back waiting to be killed: their only possible reprieve lies in someone coming and taking them. After the rape, the first thing Lucy attends to is her wounded dog. Near the end of the film when Lurie sees the boy whom he believes was one of her rapists spying on her, he turns the dog on him.

The final aspect that we want to touch upon isn’t an image in the strict sense we’ve referred to in relation to the other three. Houses, cars and dogs are all object images: we see an object that we can call a house, a car, a dog. But violation is nevertheless central to the film’s image structure: there are numerous images of violation in the film. Even the brief affair with Melanie appears to be a contravention. In one shot we see Lurie going to see Melanie and she seems reluctant, saying that her flatmate will soon return. Moments later director Steve Jacobs shows us a low angle shot from behind Lurie of him lying in bed, while hovering over him is what looks like a very hesitant Melanie. Even in an earlier scene in Lurie’s house when they first spend time together, Melanie moves around it as though not quite wanting to be there, not quite understanding why she is. Lurie of course initially doesn’t see his affair with Melanie as a violation; she’s a grown-up woman, no matter how much younger than the fifty two year old Lurie.

Another example of violation of course comes with the rape, but the film keeps the details ambiguous and seems almost to want to explore a woman’s violation as part of a broader sense of encroachment, a violation that hovers over the film in one form or another. For example, when late in the film Lurie goes and visits Melanie’s father to apologize for his behaviour, Jacobs shows a man basically wandering into the house of a stranger. Let in by Melanie’s thirteen year old sister, Lurie is alone again with one of the man’s daughters and the film offers a strange echo of the earlier scene in his own house where Melanie visits. In both there is a sense of unease; it is evident in the silence that the voices come out of, and the undecidability of the body language. While it seems extremely unlikely anything will happen, there is nevertheless a tonal edge indicative of nobody trusting anybody else, as if trust itself has somewhere, somehow, fundamentally been violated.

Now at the end of the film, Jacobs brings his image – house, car, dog, violation – structure together in the scene where Lurie walks along the path to his daughter’s house. As he arrives Lucy asks where the car is and he says he just wanted to walk. He gives the dog a hug as he arrives and the film closes on a retreating shot of Lucy’s house, and contained within it is also Petrus’s newly built abode. It is as though the film is utilising the images of the decision to walk rather than take the car, to hug the dog rather than see it as a foe, and to view the new house as the possibility of new hope that tries to counter the violations, abuses and stresses that the images of dogs, cars and houses have been used for hitherto.

Yet while this may be all very well, have we really got to grips with Jacobs’ film? All that we have said may be true but is it no more than a way of interpreting the film without getting close to the problems it addresses? Are films not more often great when they can’t be contained rather than when they so readily can be? One reason why many masterpieces come in for such close scrutiny and so many multiple readings is that they keep their secrets, or rather their secrets are so multiple that they must be teased apart by the subjectivity of the person imposing a perspective on the film. A great film isn’t one where the clarity of meaning is explicated, but where multiple projections are valid. How interesting a film happens to be often rests on how much subjectivity it manages to elicit. Consequently there are many films that are perfectly well made – low budget exploitation films and genre pieces – and yet there is little instinct to analyse them. This doesn’t mean they are not worthy of analysis; simply to say that they are good of their kind passes barely for a remark – to paraphrase Stanley Cavell when he notes in The World Viewed that commenting on a stylistic aspect of a film doesn’t quite add up to saying anything.

Perhaps then a remarkable film is one that asks of us numerous remarks, and of course it could be argued that Disgrace isn’t quite that film. But at the same time it is an adaptation of a novel hugely respected, by a Nobel prize-winning writer fascinated by ethics, and the relationship between humans, and occasionally between human and animals. Near the end of Disgrace, the book, Lurie is talking to Bev Shaw, the woman with whom he’s been occasionally sleeping with, and the woman who looks after the dogs. Lurie notes Bev’s capacity for gaining the trust of animals, and also adds that Bev uses this trust to liquidate them. Yet this is perhaps trust borne out of some awareness that the animal knows her intentions are not malign. It is true she will kill them, but she does so with great regret, and it is as if Lurie wonders whether that is how he would wish to die as well: at the hands of someone he trusts; at the hands of a benign executioner. Surely such an idea is much more interesting to explore than image structures and how they all tie together, especially when another critic could come along and offer an alternative image structure probably equally valid: one based on women, music, aging and romanticism. It is not as if talking about dogs, women, cars and violation has brought out any intrinsic image structure, it is just that we have semi-randomly, though hopefully not un-insightfully, focused on certain images within the film that can help make sense of it. But in doing so one may wonder whether we’ve come close to what makes the film of any interest, and much of that surely lies in the source novel.

Of course to talk about the novel leads many to another cliché of film criticism: that film is a visual medium and one should pay attention to the visual elements on the screen, not rummage around a source novel looking for ideas and themes that are barely present in the film adaptation. Yet we’re not interested in fixed ideas about what film and film criticism ought to be; of more interest is how one responds to the film and what sort of journeys these responses take us on. For example, this observation in the book about benign executioners is basically an interior thought, or what is called free indirect discourse. They are David’s thoughts, and could only really have been offered in the film in voice over, which the film chooses to avoid.  Yet the film constantly alludes to such ideas, and it’s consistent with ideas running through a number of Coetzee’s works, most especially Elizabeth Costello, and the novella within it, The Lives of Animals. Rather than simply looking at the way dogs function in the film as an image structure, why restrict ourselves when we can go further and muse over animals in Coetzee’s work generally, and then wonder how they function in relation to the film we’re watching? This might be the opposite of a reading that pays close attention to the text, but who says digressions aren’t the best way to get closer in tone and feeling to the work under discussion?

In Youth, for example, Coetzee talks of girls in the UK who have the “sensuality of animals brought up together in their own steamy den”, while the central character in The Master of Petersburg, namely Dostoyevsky, says “animals don’t find it hard to die”, and that perhaps we should take our lesson from them. In The Lives of Animals, central character Elizabeth Costello is asked why she is vegetarian and she says “it comes out of a desire to save my soul”. Earlier she says “to be alive is to be a living soul. An animal – and we are all animals – is to be an embodied soul”. These are just a few of the many pronouncements concerning animals in Coetzee’s work, and Coetzee himself is a well-known vegetarian. How can we work this idea through Disgrace; what is its ethos of being, taking into account especially a comment Lurie makes while walking with his daughter? Here he notes that to stop a dog from doing what it naturally wants to do is to tamper with its nature, and up until this point in the film Lurie has shown himself chiefly to be a libertarian, evident in his Byron comment mentioned earlier. Yet one of the things the film has searched out is the idea of dogs being both man’s best friend and a foe’s worst enemy. He is potentially friend and foe; both actively aggressive and passively loving.

It is as though the film’s problem, like the book’s, is to try to see the other side of the human, and at the same time make the being of the animal evident. Now central to Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals is Costello’s attempt to counter an argument made by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, where he says “so we have to set up a continuum that stretches from the Martian at one end to the bat to the dog to the ape…to the human being”. This is Costello summing up Nagel’s thesis, and insisting she has a literal mind as she goes on to say she cannot abstract things the ways she feels Nagel can, as though the idea of the martian and the bat are argumentative tools. For her, when she thinks what it feels like to be a corpse, and believes the older one gets the more this is likely, she doesn’t give a damn about the distinction between whether she knows what it is like to be corpse as a corpse or as a human thinking she’s a corpse. “The distinction seems to me trivial”, she says. What matters is not so much clear categories as moments of dissolution: “for an instant, before my whole structure collapses in panic, I am alive inside that contradiction, dead and alive at the same time.” As she insists this is a thought we are all capable of having, but so often refuse to confront, we may be reminded of Lurie here, and how all his libertarian arguments aren’t too far removed from the way Nagel’s are presented, despite the apparent huge gap between a Romantic thinker like Byron and an analytic philosopher like Nagel. They both however assume, it seems, a thicker membrane between self and other than Costello does, and yet by the end of the film is it not that this tissue for Lurie becomes ever flimsier, ever more ready to dissolve the person into a type of tenderness, a softness of being?

Now the book is much less willing to arc its central character than the film, but the film nevertheless plays quite well with this problem of self and other, self and the difficulty of transformation. In the film, Lurie as played by John Malkovich, is both more invulnerable at the beginning and more vulnerable at the end, so that while its character arcing can sometimes seem a little like, say, As Good as it Gets, where Jack Nicholson starts the film as cruelly self-absorbed and ends it loving and sensitive, there is still in Jacobs’ film enough of the problem of the self at work. We can look at two scenes that register this change within unchangeability. The first comes when Lurie goes back to Cape Town to see Melanie’s father, and the second when he receives fellatio from a prostitute.

In the first as he arrives at the house it may be clear that he is there to apologize, but at the same time his contriteness is unlikely to have completely dissipated his sexual desire, a point made clear in the book when Lurie notices that the young girl he sees looks like her older sister, but even more beautiful. At this stage it seems he is still keen to say he is sorry, no matter if his body also begins to yearn for the younger sister, who appears more inviting, warmer than her older sister seemed to be in the inversion of the scene early in the film where Melanie comes to his house. But then when the father returns home, wondering what Lurie is doing in his abode, Lurie seems to realize his efforts at admitting culpability are futile; that the father cannot quite understand the human terms upon which one sins. When Lurie says the father “has heard Melanie’s side of the story, and now I’d like to give you mine”, Jacobs offers 180% degree shot/counter shots with the camera in front of the characters rather than behind them in more conventional over the shoulder shots. A simple cinematic metaphor for distance or irony, the shots here indicates the degree of incomprehension at work. With desire still in his body for young flesh, and an uncomprehending person he is confessing to, Lurie might wonder why he is bothering. Just before leaving he goes to the doorway of the bedroom where Melanie’s mother and sister sit, and getting down on his knees touches the floor with his forehead.

The second scene comes while he is still back in Cape Town, and where it is the accumulated brutality that might seem to lead him back to prostitution. After leaving Melanie’s family’s house, and after returning to his own and finding it ransacked, he goes and watches Melanie in a play that she was rehearsing for early in the film. The boyfriend tells him to leave her alone, and he goes out into the night, procuring a woman. Does he go for the same reasons as at the beginning of the film? Is he seeking the pleasures of the flesh as his entitlement or as his consolation – as finally the acceptance of his abject state?

Maybe it is useful to differentiate the sort of changes in a character like Lurie and the transformative arc often give to characters in more mainstream films and books. Jacobs film is not especially challenging, and in many ways quite mainstream itself, but it comes from a book that is demanding, and many traces of that book remain in the film. Numerous Coetzee novels are about character change – but whether the shift takes place in the present, as in Slow Man where a fit man loses the use of his legs, or in the recent past, as in Elizabeth Costello where some crisis seems to have overtaken her not so long ago, what matters is the comprehension of crisis over the propulsion of change. The former suggests a degree of meditative inactivity, where much of the change takes place internally, while the latter seems more socially oriented. The internal change requires inner attentiveness; the social demands a series of human encounters. Obviously Coetzee isn’t so radical a novelist that he only follows a character’s inner shifts, but he is interested in the interactions coming out of the social chiefly for the purposes of that inner investigation. When in the book as well as in the film Lurie goes to see Melanie’s family there is a sort of ethically experimental dimension to the moment. He goes not so much to apologize as to see what he is capable of, as almost to play the role of the apologetic violator. It is a role that he seems not especially to believe in; nor, though, is he especially cynical. We might assume that he is wondering what it feels like to apologize. As Jacobs offers the sharp 180% shots we’ve invoked it’s as if to say in form what Lurie is feeling: that such behaviour is a charade; that certain ethical problems cannot be resolved this way. In a film based more on a mainstream text or a film less faithful to a difficult work, such a scene would be the transformative moment, the scene in which Lurie faces up to his moral responsibilities, and moves from selfish to socialised, self-absorbed, to societally focused.

But the film’s strengths lie in the book’s toughness. What the book does well and, the film respects, is the utilising of scenes that could offer cathartic pay-off but instead remain tempered by Lurie’s inner truculence, his inability to play the socially well-adjusted. For example in one scene not long after he arrives at his daughter’s, he goes to visit the local vet, namely Bev. She isn’t beautiful, she’s probably around Lurie’s age, and he makes a remark that clearly indicates she’s not much of a temptation. Later he ends up in bed with her, indicating, perhaps, that he is at last facing reality: that he is also aging flesh and should seek companionship in his own peer group and not exploit younger generations. Yet the fling, however meaningful, is also casual, and when he returns to Cape Town he still sleeps with a prostitute. This is the existentially stammering self; not quite the character as moral arc.

This raises an interesting and central paradox in Coetzee’s work, and while Jacobs’ film might not be as formally tough an adaptation as the mid-eighties Dust, Marion Hansel’s film of Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country, it still possess, like much of Coetzee’s fiction, this problem of character, and in a threefold way. First, in the gap between human and animal; the second in the problem of remaining oneself, and the third, the gap between the self and the world, with the latter an issue in some ways connected to the first, but with Coetzee’s ambition lying in this constant conjoining and separation. The membrane is both thicker and thinner in Coetzee’s work than in most writers. At the beginning of the film Lurie has if you like animal desires out of human values – his admiration for the bestial is interconnected with notions of Romantic freedom – while by the end of the film he seems to have accepted the animal state not as a higher glory to the self and its needs, but a low-level acceptance of one’s similarities with the animals less in power than in weakness. The book pushes this further than the film, with the penultimate chapter ending with Lucy saying to her father that maybe she ought to start again, with nothing. “No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.” “Like a dog,” he says. “Yes, like a dog,” she replies. At the end of the last chapter Lurie takes a dog into the surgery “like a lamb” and prepares it for slaughter. It’s as if it could be Lurie himself that he is putting down, as though well aware now that he is also part of the world of the infirm and not of the powerful, just as, perhaps, on the national level, Lucy is accepting that the white man must accept his rule is over.

How do the three propositions we made play out in the film, however? In relation to the gap between the human and the animal, Lurie would appear to see the relations as basically metaphorical – a thick membrane of language. So when he tells the story of the male dog whose sexuality was so beaten out of him that whenever the dog would see a bitch it would run around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, trying to hide, Lurie suggests it would be better to shoot the dog than see such a sorry suppression of instinct. His point is well enough made, but it comes out of a certain love of argumentation, one senses; a need to make a point rather than feel the animal’s pain. By the end of the film we might expect the telling to be told slightly differently, maybe with more of the story and less of the point. The gap between the human and the animal would be empathically closed.

Between the two tellings, Lurie would no longer quite be himself, and yet this question of what one happens to be can perhaps only be answered when one threatens to become someone or something else. At the beginning of the book we’re informed Lurie’s “temperament is fixed, set”, by most measurements he believes he is happy, yet “he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus. “Call no man happy until he is dead.” Could we rephrase this and say call no man a man until he has been unhappy – until he has searched out his further reaches? By the end of the film it is true that Lurie has not been transformed, in common scriptwriting parlance, but that is more because the sort of shifts it has searched out work on Lurie’s core rather than on his social self. Many films interested in the transformative work the social: they show the character in need of a wake-up call because of the way they (dys)function socially, through their arrogance, their selfishness, their dubious values; whether that is Mel Gibson realizing What Women Want, Matthew McConaughey losing his tough exterior in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, or Christina Ricci  moving from brat to mother in The Opposite of Sex, these are all readily transformative characters.

But how does one dent rather than transform the essential self, how to indicate the marrow of a man? Now this might seem paradoxical; that surely denting is less substantial than transformation. Yet so often transformation is what happens to a character that is not textured enough to be anything but a vehicle for transformation. He or she is really too unformed to be transformed. Coetzee, and by extension the filmmakers, have created a character whose formation is integrated enough for a dent to function much more significantly than a complete arc in another work. The solidity of the self remains in Disgrace, even if it is also much more fragile. When the end of the book shows Lurie about to put down a dog, we of course wonder whether it is all but a metaphor for his own desire to die. Where many a character can live another life through the lack of integrity to be oneself, a character like Lurie is still himself but is that self too fragile to want to go on living? Though the film ends differently, with a stronger transformative arc as Lurie seems to accept his daughter’s wish to integrate with the black community, impregnated as she is by one of the rapists, accepting as she is to live on the land but to pass ownership onto someone else, the robustness of character gives such an ending more ambivalence than it would possess had Lurie been a less integrated, a less stubborn figure.

The third point follows from the second. It is Lurie’s strength of character – and we offer it by no means as a compliment – that drives the book and the film. He is obviously not one of life’s inter-actors – the film has a scene near the beginning where he lectures with minimal social enthusiasm; and the students respond likewise. His social aperture is narrow; his subjectivity large. This idea could have been reversed. If Lurie was socially responsive, however inept, then the film could allow the social more readily to alter his existence as he gets caught up in a series of events which earlier illustrated his egotism but then began to show instead his generosity. There is a change of character behaviour, but not especially of character. But how, one might ask, to transform a character that is so insular? Perhaps by doing little more than showing the squint in the light, the sense that Lurie cannot quite allow life in, but at the same time cannot quite deny that it has already made an impact.

Of course, for some, the most important thing is to look at the film as a cinematic text, to ignore the book and pay attention simply to what is on the screen. The first part of this piece more or less does that, but it doesn’t seem enough. It allows for a sort of self-contained smugness to set in, as though the film is understood within narrow parameters where what is so interesting about the Coetzeen world is the sense of other worlds leaking into one’s own. To examine this question which the film addresses, one believes, is to look at it through the strongest subjectivity at work in the material. The film may star John Malkovich, may have been written by Anna Maria Monticelli and directed by Jacobs, but the strongest sensibility at work here is still the writer of the original novel. Perhaps the critic’s job is not to interpret a given film but instead to search out what they perceive is the strongest voice at play within it, the voice that, in the given context in which the work is analysed, takes us places. In this instance, in relation to the narrow aperture of feeling, but the depth therein, it remains Coetzee’s, though there would certainly be a place for looking at it from the point of view of Malkovich’s aloof screen persona as well. But that of course would be another story; another essay.


©Tony McKibbin