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Virginia Woolf at the Cinema (Part Five)

By Edited Aug 3, 2016 0 0

In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the housekeeper Mrs McNab is present before her own projection of Mrs Ramsay, yet her “sidelong leer” and gaping, “aimlessly smiling face,” implies she cannot ‘read’ Mrs Ramsay who becomes Andrew Ramsay’s “kitchen table,” imagined “when you are not there.” Laura Marcus refers to this as the cinematic technique of “a way of seeing that writers of this period understood to be both central and hidden, revealing itself only to those who had learned to ‘read’ the film image, and the film image of the literary text.” Mrs McNab can no more read the projection than read Lily Briscoe’s painting. In ‘Time Passes’, it is as if Mrs McNab, singing a worn-out old music hall song, passes between the cinema projector and the screen, and the action plays across her figure, with Mrs Dalloway, unseen, before her eyes.  

There also exist cinematic influences in the conclusions of both novels. Lily’s climatic brush-stroke, which completes To the Lighthouse and her painting, does not symbolize ‘The End’ so much as its own conclusion; the action continues, distantly, with the Ramsay party reaching the lighthouse, but as this concludes the novel’s symbolism, there is no further need of us, the audience. “Woolf experimented with the representation of two things happening simultaneously – Lily completing her painting, Mr Ramsay’s journey to the lighthouse in ways almost certainly by film’s ability to represent parallel or ‘double action’ either by use of a split screen or by rapid cutting” (Marcus). We have had our vision and, like Lily’s picture, “a likeness of thing thought about,” (Woolf, ‘The Cinema’) it is complete but never finished; it is capable, as an abstract work, of multiple views and revelations (“One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with, she reflected).”

In comparison, Mrs Dalloway ends with the action exhausted, the rooms emptying, with Elllie Henderson lingering only because “she wanted to see everything,” like a cinema-goer unable to leave the auditorium until the credits have rolled and the lights go up; the effect is of an audience running out of actors to watch, until we are left with Peter Walsh looking upon Clarissa, and we reach ‘The End,’ at which point one can almost hear the film flapping free in the projector.      

In conclusion, perhaps we should view both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as anti-films, made from the clippings from an imaginary cutting-room floor. Woolf shows art should be about not the story, but the effect of forcing the efficient mechanics of story upon the human mind; by attaching narrative fragments to symbols of human thought, Woolf created art more compelling and profound than the picture palace – or multiplex – fodder often presented as film. The main difference between the two novels themselves is fundamentally cinematic – Mrs Dalloway is a novel of cinema-going, and of watching, as Peter Walsh does, cinema-goers, (“they would have their two hours at the pictures”) who must leave once the film is through with itself, while To the Lighthouse is a novel of cinema-becoming, of people who find that, through the displacement of key narrative elements, find purpose in another direction – the one originally intended, had it been “fine tomorrow.” Woolf’s essay ‘The Cinema’ should be viewed as a plan for two forms of culture in danger of losing their way, and the two novels discussed, viewed as products of a dialogue between the two forms.

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