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a tropical iceland » “I was conscience of an atmosphere…as though time was melting with the snow…”

a tropical iceland

July 24, 2007

“I was conscience of an atmosphere…as though time was melting with the snow…”

Filed under: Uncategorized — elizabethomas @ 9:43 am

After reading Portrait of Jennie, I was immersed in a sort of dream-like state myself. I had many questions that seemed rather over-played and obvious at the time; however, after attending class (and thinking a little bit longer about it) I realize that these questions are to be appropriately discussed at length and with no unfortunate conclusion. Obviously, that is the making for a good book.
I also wanted to take a greater look at art in literature. Specifically, the portrait of a character has been used in many great literary works to address the age-old questions of what is life? Time? Do they coexist? I found myself rifling through my British literature textbooks (and sounding strangely like the voice from the beginning of the movie of POJ) for My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, or The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

I had read them both in high school and remembered being utterly perplexed: Life in art? It’s just a still life on a 5’ by 11’ (or however large) canvass with paint on it, right? Yet before I was about to launch into this length discussion, I was about to write that I don’t believe any of these characters (Jennie, Dorian Gray, the Duchess) to be real. Real in the stories they are in, I mean*. But to quote Jennie, “Does it matter? It’s always. This was tomorrow—once.”
I wanted to interview Jennie, in a sense, and understand her point of view as a character set in another characters dream. What was her say in this? As we’ve discussed this at length in class, I of course wanted to bring it back up: Is she real? or is she just a portrayal of real? These questions of beauty, life and death rang in my ears.
Enough with the rhetoric, I need evidence to support my claim of life in art. In the movie Portrait of Jennie, directed by William Dieterle, the audience is thrown head first into all of these philosophical questions at the very beginning of the film:

Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death? Through a hundred civilizations, philosophers and scientists have come together with answers, but the bewilderment remains… Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever. Out of the shadows of knowledge, and out of a painting that hung on a museum wall, comes our story, the truth of which lies not on our screen but in your hearts.

My question was, why did William Dieterle want to begin with this “god”-like sort of trance? Why not just begin with Eben and his flashback to meeting Jennie for the first time—as it does in the book? It seems that Dieterle wanted these questions up-front, marked by shots of clouds “wrapping” themselves around the Earth in time. Later along in the movie, most of Jennie’s appearances will be “wrapped” in clouds, or a kind of misty haze.

Yet in the novel, Robert Nathan begins with a short reflection from Eben and then launches into his story of Jennie. Nathan obviously didn’t need for Jennie to be introduced in a transient fog, the situation was already fantastic because the audience was experiencing it with the characters. We had the same shivers as Eben Adams, we felt the same wave crash over us, and shed the same tears when Jennie’s parents died. When Jennie appears and visits with Eben, time is suspended and nothing can be trusted as real. Dieterle let’s us know this by the clouds, and the haze—making his job slightly more difficult than Robert Nathan’s.
The time order, or “discourse-time” is exactly the same in both mediums of Portrait of Jennie. Seymour Chatman discusses time and the concept of establishing shots, more specifically the long shot “introduced at the beginning of a scene to establish the interrelationship of details to be shown subsequently in nearer shots.”

The lengthy narration in the beginning the quick cuts between the clouds and the city skylines the story begins to suggest the motifs of expansion and transcendence of time, and the collapse of boundaries between the two. In further scenes, these “aerial” shots of New York City, the sea landscape, or the Central Park. The shots then conclude with a picture of New York City on a canvass. The interweaving texture is clearly visible. These shots are narrative in the sense that they convey time beginning the story, and also passing between scenes. The mundane time passage occurs outside, or off screen. Yet, this is very important to Portrait of Jennie, the novel. Obviously there are no “pauses” for time passage—it just does. With respect to his internal dialogue, Eben and Jennie live in a continuum outside of their (what I’ll call) “real life” time.


In certain scenes of the movie, however, Dieterle chooses to depict the different times in interesting ways outside of “narrative event shots”. For example, after “grown-up” Jennie informs Eben she’s leaving to see her sick aunt, the camera cuts to a close-up of two of them. Set in the city park, Jennie leans up against a tree and listens to Eben. He is slightly closer to the camera and she is barely in the background. He says slowly, “No matter how far away that kind of a distance is, it can be reached….over there beyond the hills one can drive to…eastward, to the seas. It’s the only kind of distance I ever knew before.” And then he explains, “But now I feel another kind of distance, a crueler distance…a distance of yesterday and tomorrow.” The camera is faces them directly, and the light is thrown completely on Jennie’s face. Although Eben is speaking, only his eyes looking off screen can be seen clearly.
Jennie and Eben are separated by much more than tree and lighting, obviously. To add icing to the cake, it almost looks as though Jennie’s (or Jennifer Jones’ character) face is suspended. The tension of two “worlds” is paramount to Eben’s dialogue on distance. He refers to the distance he feels to his art, from his love when she leaves him (or sits right next to him), and in his past, present and future life –all blending together.
In the novel, they discuss the beauty of the park and Jennie makes the observation that “the sun goes down in the same green, lovely sky; the birds sing…for us, or yesterday…or for tomorrow. It was never made for anything but beauty, Eben—whether we live now, or long ago.” In a sort of lyrical way, Jennie is describing how beauty can transcend time, but also allowing for it to display it’s ultimate uselessness. If one can see beauty and experience it (albeit Jennie or a landscape), does it serve any higher purpose if it never really lives?


Yet again, I believe William Dieterle decided to voice this opinion not only through his character made for Jennifer Jones, but also through his interesting choices of quotations used following the initial opening scene. His specific choice of John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn already starts the audience on a solemn note because it essentially argues that even if art is eternal, reality is the real truth–separating these two worlds.

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

-John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

I think Dieterle was taking creative license with this selection of Keats. Granted, he only displayed the final couplet, but I wanted more context to understand it. It is assumed that the “woe” Dieterle refers to is the loss of Jennie, but her figure and presence (her beauty) is forever what we, the audience and Eben Adams, see. The Grecian urn depicts a tale of action and life on the front of the Urn, but because it’s suspended in time as a work of art, the audience (Keats) contrasts the beautiful scene with the reality of a world in pain. It’s beauty remains intact because of our (the audiences) perception of it.
Similarly, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, Dorian is the subject and Basil Hallward is the artist. Hallward becomes obsessed with Dorian and his physical attributes, deciding to paint them to “revitalize the wearied senses.” The picture represents the fascination society has with youthful beauty and it’s manifestations in art. Dorian throws himself into an almost hedonistic lifestyle, and although he is a “real” character, The Picture of Dorian Gray can also be categorized as a fantasy because Dorian wishes to retain the beauty he has in his picture. His wish is granted, yet it leads to his ultimate demise. Although youth and beauty remain important, the portrait is returned to its original form –suggesting the price one must pay for beauty and youth is too high. Indeed, Dorian gives nothing less than his soul.

movie adaptation of novel

In the novel, Portrait of Jennie, we see the creation and definition of soul (and in this case life) through the two characters of Eben and Jennie. In Chatman’s article he discusses the roués of ‘prettiness’ and the complications of depicting it on screen. If one were to read of prettiness on paper, says Chatman, each reader would visualize ‘prettiness’ in his or her own degree. However, a filmmaker has to come to an agreement of what best represents ‘pretty.’ Reversing this kind of logic and applying it to our two soul mates, a filmmaker can easily make two characters “complete” each other with acting techniques and visual on-screen chemistry. This kind of “specified love” can only be placed in the generic sense in words. The author prays the reader understands what he or she sees in her mind to be the best depiction of ____and ____’s romance.
The romance between Eben and Jennie is a bit more complicated, because their relationship begins with Jennie as a little girl “hurrying” to age to Eben’s ideal woman. Eben starts out as her friendly adult acquaintance, but falls in love with her by the time she “hurries” to adolescence. I like to think of it more as Jennie in Eben’s head “drying” on her canvass. After all, she is a work of art. Bad pun.

Perhaps the most insightful discussion about art occurs in the book, and not in the movie, between Eben and a friend of Eben’s, Arne Kuntsler. I find this interaction to be most amusing and enlightening, as I personally relate to Arne (or at least the description of him). After looking over his friend’s portfolio, Arne asserts that Eben hasn’t a chance in the art world, his pictures of landscapes and flowers aren’t enough to keep him afloat, so to speak. “Art should belong to the masses,” he claims. And after speaking with Gus and Mr. Moore, Kuntsler and Eben retire for another beer. “Just the same,” he says, “art can only mean something to the artist who creates it.” So basically this aligns with the beauty argument formed earlier. Beauty is made and seen by everyone, but the only people who create it in an artistic medium are the ones who give it meaning—tragically, the only ones who will, and can experience that meaning.


In the novel, Jennie is a real person… meaning, she comes in contact with other characters besides Eben. We see her interact with Gus the taxi cab driver, so clearly she’s not made up in Eben’s head. William Dieterle saw it in a different way. In the movie, Jennie is more a ghost. I feel this was more an appropriate version of her, which is sad. My head spun one too many times after reading the novel, and it was a fair interpretation I thought on David Selznick and William Dieterle’s part to create Jennie as a ghost. It makes the story more interesting! She may or may not be real, time may or may not exist, and art can manifest content in everything or nothing. It depends on our beliefs in the fantastic and the imagination of the artist.
Of course, I’m sure I’m missing some essential glue to stick all of this together. But to me, interpreting adaptations (especially ones as dense as these) requires everything I’ve done so far…and really, that is basically talk about it, and worldly generalize a theory from it. From Concepts in Film Theory, Dudley Andrew says that “the hermeneutic circle, central to the interpretation theory, preaches that an explication of a text occurs only after a prior understanding of it, yet that prior understanding is justified by the careful explication it allows.” This concurs with my concept of discussion and open-ended questioning. Of course, Portrait of Jennie attempts to address almost every important question ever to plague our most famous philosophers, but no one can have a sincere response to anything without a general concept of it. I’ll close with a section of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian and Lord Henry discuss Dorian’s portrait and how he’d disgusted by it now.
“Why do you talk of it? It used to remind me of those curious lines in some play–Hamlet, I think–how do they run?–

Like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart.

Yes. That is what it was like.”

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