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Virginia Woolf at the Cinema (Part Three)

By Edited Jun 17, 2015 0 0

If one were to describe the opening of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to a person unfamiliar with the novel, you may, quite reasonably, describe the action thus: a mother talks to her youngest son on the likelihood of an excursion to a lighthouse the next day, if the weather is fine. The father interrupts, telling his wife and son the weather will not be fine, ruling out the trip. Of the edition of To the Lighthouse I have referred to in writing this essay, this synopsis makes up just four out of thirty-three lines of prose and dialogue. The key to the Woolf's use of cinema's techniques lies within the closing part of the prose sandwiched by the parental dialogue:

“...in his mind that he already had his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his high forehead and his fierce blue eyes...so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator [in a catalogue], imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench, or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.”

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We see here a difference in two aspects to Mrs Dalloway: first, Woolf directs the reader along an internal projection, from one character to another (a mother to her son) of an image into the recipient’s consciousness (that ‘high forehead’ perhaps a screen upon which to project a picture); second, the nature of that projection as a moment of great importance, not only displaced from the narrative, but also from the narrative's reality; James Ramsay’s involvement in a “momentous enterprise” is a mere potentiality. The ‘private language’ is that of symbolism – the picture James cuts out means nothing to anyone else, but to the young child “It was fringed with joy.” A film of the expressionistic nature Woolf craved in ‘The Cinema,’ made specifically for James Ramsay, would see a refrigerator deployed to symbolise joy. But it is the arguably more universal symbol to which James journeys ten years later as an adolescent, which we can grasp more readily.

James Ramsay, who started the novel with a Oedipal instinct to murder his father (again, a possible scene from a Hollywood thriller), ends by arriving at the island, a journey begun with a visual gesture, “bodily hieroglyphic,” from Mr Ramsay, who “raised his right hand mysteriously high in the air, and let it fall again upon his knee, as if he were conducting some secret symphony).” One member of the seafaring party, Cam, fills in parts of the journey by applying a narrative about the sinking of the boat; on hearing her father say “come along now,” her immediate thought is that they are to embark on an “extraordinary adventure.” There are also murmurs of three men having drowned in some earlier voyage; such narrative fragments also sink under the waves in the dominant vicinity of the lighthouse. The Ramsays sail in a brief triumph over representation and memory, that “...world which has gone beneath the waves,” characters who arrive at the nature of their motivation and meaning as much as they arrive at the lighthouse.   

In comparison to Mrs Dalloway’s widescreen swooping and close-ups, To the Lighthouse presents us with something more intimate, as if viewed through a mutoscope or slideshow, playing through again and again. Instead of a city and its multitude, we have a remote Scottish island and a few holidaymakers. Elements are stripped of representation; we are closer to Woolf’s “innumerable symbols for emotions.” Big Ben, star of every classic establishing shot of London, representation of time, symbol of government and human power, finds itself replaced by a symbol of itself, a tower of light by which humans can navigate their lives. The light also becomes that of a projector illuminating human activity for its audience, the reader. Therefore, with such a projection embodied within the text, so is the audience; To the Lighthouse integrates the techniques tried out in Mrs Dalloway and so integrates the audience into the text. Woolf achieves this remarkable effect through what she learned in writing ‘The Cinema’: “the film-maker must come by his own convention, as painters and writers and musicians have done before him.” To the Lighthouse sees Woolf trying out her new language for the cinema in a novel.

So, instead of the “teeth, pearls and velvet, the textual of the actual,” exhibited by the many

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adaptations of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel Anna Karenina (which Trotter notes “had been filmed seven times in all between 1910 and 1919”), we read something of the struggle of conventional mimetic duplication of everyday life, the representations of “the pettiness of actual existence,” against the symbols of “what we are pleased to call reality” (Woolf, ‘The Cinema’). Michael H Whitworth gives the example of the scientific Mr Bankes and his discussion with the painter Lily Briscoe in chapter nine, where Mr Bankes leads us to compare Lily’s abstract painting with the painting of “the cherry trees in blossom of the banks of the river Kennet”:

    “William Bankes asks Lily to explain why she has drawn a triangular purple shape in one part of her painting. It becomes clear that Bankes values art for its ability accurately to reproduce recognisable scenes...Secondarily, though poignantly, the widower Bankes...values the painting not for its intrinsic qualities as a painting, but for its personal associations.”         

Despite its accuracy of representation, in this context, the cherry trees are as meaningful to us as James’s picture of a refrigerator is as a symbol of happiness. Lily Briscoe is intent on a more abstract effect: “But she made no attempt at likeness, she said.” Whitworth explains: “Bankes realises that a mother and child might be ‘reduced to a purple shadow without irrelevance’. The lack of representational clarity is less important than the harmony that Lily establishes between the colours and the form on the canvas.”

Lily, the artist, strives towards the obscure, yet universal; Mr Bankes, art owner, strives for the obvious, yet the personal. Although it is hard to deny Mr Bankes’s pleasure at the painting he owns (it reminds him of the honeymoon with his late wife), we see here the conflict Woolf described in ‘The Cinema’: unless the film is purely of flowers on the banks of the Kennet (“the wonders of the actual world”) Woolf isn't interested in their mimetic representation; she wants the flowers as part of “something abstract, something moving, something calling for only the very slightest help from words or from music to make itself intelligible,” to evoke within the viewer the “physical realities, the very pebbles on the beach, the very quiver of the lips...” Woolf wishes those riverbank flowers to become such as “the trees shaking their branches in the sunshine” (Woolf, ‘The Cinema’) in her suggested retelling of Anna Karenina.

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