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Dr. Campbell’s Film, Text, and Culture class has taught us all about how to analyze the technical aspects of film, and literature; and how that relates to the culture we live in. Personally, I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge in regards to the many different components that are necessary to create a film. While understanding the importance of certain aspects of film such as acting, cinematography, and editing is an essential part of this course; I think that being able to view a movie, and see through the surface of that film to comprehend the meaning behind it, is something very special that I will certainly take away with me. Before entering this class, my view of films in general was that their main purpose was to entertain. Obviously one of the major goals for a film maker is to entertain his or her audience. However, films have the ability to do so much more than simply cause a reaction for that short cluster of time. Films, especially like the ones we have viewed in class, allow us to think beyond the two hours we spend in front of that screen, and analyze messages and meaning that the film has expressed, and how that meaning relates to our own lives.

I wanted to take a closer look at the 1994 film version of “Little Women,” and compare aspects from that movie to those in both the novel, and film “Portrait of Jennie.” One of the major themes for “Little Women,” and “Portrait of Jennie” is that of love, and loss; and how experiencing love in a deep way can profoundly affect, and influence one’s ability to follow other passions, such as Jo’s writing in “Little Women.” The scene in which Beth passes away shows the audience just how powerful the love between Jo, and her sisters really is; and how that love ended up crossing over into Jo’s writing. The scene begins with Beth lying in her bed, holding onto Marmie’s hand as she ever so patiently waits for Jo to arrive. The shot widens to reveal Jo, staring at Beth in utter disbelief. This is the first time in Jo’s life that she is experiencing a true loss. There is a realization in Jo’s eyes as the importance of this love, and loss of Beth becomes clear. I think it is interesting to note the decision that Gillian Armstrong made in spending most of the time during Beth’s speech focusing the camera on Jo. Not only was the focus on Jo, but the element of the close-up came into play as well. Although Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Jo March is not my favorite of the three adaptations, I have to admit that during this scene, there were elements of her performance that were undeniably stunning. During a scene of this magnitude, the close-up on Jo added to the impact the audience already felt over Beth dying. However, it also created a window into the soul of Jo March. The camera is positioned so that the audience is staring straight into Jo’s eyes. We are in effect seeing, and feeling every emotion that passes through her. The pain, and reality of the situation seeps through her every pore.

Bela Balasz describes the importance of the close-up in her essay named appropriately enough, “The Close-Up.”

“The close-up can show us a quality in a gesture of the hand we never noticed before when we saw that hand stroke or strike something, a quality which is often more expressive than any play of features. The close-up shows your shadow on the wall with which you live all your life and which you scarcely knew; it shows the speechless face and fate of the dumb objects that live with you in your room and who’s fate is bound up with your own…But a good film with its close-ups reveals the most hidden parts in our polyphonous life, and teaches us to see the intricate visual details of life as one reads an orchestral score” (Balasz p.314,315).

Beth expresses her admiration for Jo’s talent for writing, and it is here that we can see the parallel between the love, and bond of the March sisters, and Jo’s passion for writing. This connection between love, and art becomes even more clear when Jo enters the attic, and finds that Beth had been saving all of Jo’s writing since they were children. It is only then that Jo is able to truly express herself, and her love through her art.


In the novel Portrait of Jennie, we are introduced to Eben Adams who is a lost soul; incomplete in every sense of the word. Because of this lack of love if you will, in Eben’s heart, he can never really fulfill his desire to create meaningful art; that is, until he meets Jennie Appleton. This book reminded me of probably one of the corniest lines in film history, and that is from the movie, “Jerry Maguire.” Tom Cruise’s character is also an “incomplete” man of sorts, and once he finds his soul mate, he tells her, “you complete me.” I found that in many ways, Jennie also served to complete Eben; and in turn, he completed her. On page 77 of Portrait of Jennie, Nathan describes the intense questions concerning the presence of true love, and how that exists between two human beings.

“What is it which makes a man and a woman know that they, of all other men and women in the world, belong to each other? Is it no more than chance meeting? No more than being alive together in the world at the same time? Is it only a curve of the throat, a line of the chin, the way the eyes are set, a way of speaking? Or is it something deeper and stranger, something beyond chance and fortune? Are there others, in other times of the world, whom we would have loved, who would have loved us? Is there, perhaps, one soul among all others-among all who have lived, the endless generations, from world’s end to world’s end-who must love us or die? And whom we must love, in turn-whom we must seek all our lives long-headlong and homesick-until the end” (Nathan p.77)?

The universal questions that Nathan asks in his novel add to the readers existing confusion concerning the reality of Jennie herself. The film version of “Portrait of Jennie” serves to add quite a bit more ambivalence when it comes to Jennie’s existence. I think it’s interesting because, for me, Jennie was less of an actual character, and more of a symbol for the love that we all aspire to obtain within our lives. It’s impossible to define Jennie fully because in doing so, we would have to define true love, which is in all aspects, indefinable. Each human being has a different interpretation for what that love is, or should be. In Portrait of Jennie, through Eben’s love for what he perceives to be Jennie, he creates a painting of her. Both Eben, and Jo have an intense need to express themselves through their art. On page 45 of Portrait of Jennie, Eben speaks of wanting to “know what he is painting…”

“I said: I don’t think I care very much about being rich, Jennie. I just want to paint-and to know what I’m painting. That’s what’s so hard-to know what you’re painting; to reach to something beyond these bitter times…” (Nathan p.45).
All of the buildings, and bridges that Eben painted up until the point when he meets Jennie are real in the eyes of the world around him. Yet to Eben, there will always be a missing component to his works. It is through Jennie, an unknown presence to the people surrounding Eben, that completes this emptiness within his art.

“It was the most natural thing in the world. We held each other out at arm’s length and looked at each other, smiling, and not saying anything. We couldn’t have spoken…The whole sunny, sweet smelling spring morning had come in with her” (Nathan p.81).

Eben found his soul mate. Someone who could intrinsically understand him from the very depths of his being. This profound love is paralleled in the relationship between that of Jo, and Professor Bayer in “Little Women.” The scene in which Jo, and the Professor attend the Opera expresses that deep connection that they feel for one another. I think that this movie, in particular did a great justice to the bond shared between these two characters. Just like Jennie seems to be the only person capable of truly understanding Eben; Professor Bayer does the same for Jo. He leads her back to her art by convincing her that she must write what she knows, and what is in her heart. As Jo, and the Professor sit in the wings of the stage, watching the performance, they are caught between two different worlds; fantasy, and reality. The camera begins on stage with the actors in the play, and gradually moves upward to reveal a far away shot of Jo, and Frederic. At this moment, it seems like they are almost part of the scenery. When Professor Bayer utters the translation, “your heart understood mine,” we, as the audience know that he is no longer speaking in regards to the play before them; he is instead describing the reality that is occurring between them, and at that moment, he turns his head away from the Opera towards Jo, and speaks the final lines of this scene, once again repeating, “your heart understood mine.”

I must say that while I did praise Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Jo earlier in this blog, I still believe it was an odd choice of casting. Every other character seemed to fit in relation to the descriptions in Alcott’s novel. I don’t believe that Alcott’s intention was for Jo to be characterized, or viewed as “ugly” per say, however the fact that she is considered plain in comparison to her sisters in the novel makes Jo’s relationship with Professor Bayer more concrete. The reader feels like looks are not necessarily involved in the feelings that are shared between the two. I believed in reading the book, that their love was based on something beyond the superficial, and it added to my view of their relationship as soul mates. In the 1994 film version of “Little Women,” it is obvious that quite a bit was done to down play, and in many ways diminish the appearance of Winona Ryder. However, I still saw her as a great beauty, and it was difficult to see Jo, and Frederic’s relationship as not being based somewhat on appearances. The essay, “What Novels Can Do that Films Can’t (And Vice Versa),” by Seymour Chatman does a great job in analyzing the differences in how we perceive characters in novels vs. what we are given in films.

“The interesting theoretical point to be made about evaluative descriptions in verbal narrative is that they can invoke visual elaboration in the reader’s mind. If he or she requires one, each reader will provide just the mental image to suit his or her own notions of prettiness. But the best a film (or theater) director can hope for is some degree of consensus with the spectator’s ideal of prettiness” (Chatman p.452).

Part 2:
Amanda’s Blog:
“Reality is defined as the state or quality of being real; a real thing or fact. The term reality, in its widest sense, includes everything that is, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible. Reality in this sense may include both being and nothingness, whereas existence is often restricted to being.
Perceived reality, on the other hand, is the “reality” that we perceive directly around us with our senses. Perceived reality is not the same for everyone, it is based on the explicit information received and processed by the person. As explicit information is received, it is processed in order to integrate it with the information that your other senses are gathering.”

Amanda’s Blog helps to examine the reality of the character Jennie in Robert Nathan’s novel. In today’s world, we think of reality, or something that is real as something tangible…something we can see, and touch. This was one of the mysteries involved in Portrait of Jennie. A young girl who appears from another time period is usually something we see in a science fiction film. However, Nathan’s descriptions of Jennie, and her interactions with Eben made the reader examine this aspect more closely, and think about the limitations we place on what is considered to be “real.” Amanda also discusses the difference between reality, and perceived reality. Many believe that Eben’s relationship with Jennie was perceived. It was interesting reading the novel, and then watching the film, because there was a part of me who just wanted to label Eben as “crazy.” However, there was another part who wanted so much to believe in Jennie, and her validity. Here are a few quotes I found concerning the subject of reality:


~“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” (John Lennon)
~ “To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
~“In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.” (Lionel Trilling)
~“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” (Albert Einstein)

Que Onda’s Blog:
“While Reading Portrait of Jennie I came across a quote which immediately struck me: “Art should belong to the masses.”…”Art can have meaning only to the creative spirit itself.”(50) I am concurrently doing a study of Pablo Nerudas Odas Elementales which in their very nature seem to coincide with the “Art should belong to the masses” idea. They are a collection of Odes to every day things, but through metaphor they transcend the very things they are describing. It is fascinating to see Arne Kunstler seemingly contradict himself in the same way that Morris’ interviewees do in Gates of Heaven. Personally I believe that art is both personal and for the masses. It is hard to imagine that anyone will ever react the same way from, or draw the same emotion from a piece of art. Our experiences are too different.”

I agree with Que Onda’s assessment that “art should belong to the masses.” He also discusses the importance of interpretation in regards to what we as individuals take away from a piece of literature, or a painting, or a documentary, etc… Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women is a perfect example of just how many different interpretations can be taken away from this classic piece of art. Some may argue that the novel’s theme was one expressing the importance of family; especially that of the female in this role. Others may believe that Alcott was a feminist beyond her time; giving voice to a strong female character (Jo) in order to express female superiority. Regardless of what people think; the fact that this novel has transcended time, and given so many different types of people something to walk away with, makes it a perfect example of good art. My mistake, in first being introduced to this novel many years ago was stereotyping it, and not looking beyond the title to see what it really had to offer. On the surface, this novel is about “little women.” However, there is no one target audience for this book; as we learned in one of Dr. Campbell’s classes when he read us the many names of people who have been affected by this novel.

In conclusion, I think it is important to examine the power of elements that are not necessarily “real” in the terms that our culture would like to safely define them. Beth’s passing in “Little Women” shows us that while a person may not be present in the literal sense, their souls can still live on, and influence the world that they left behind. It is this intangible force that can bring us hope, and give us the inspiration to follow our dreams.

Link to Que Onda’s Blog: “The Purpose of Art.”

The Purpose of Art

Link to Amanda’s Blog: “Reality versus Perceived Reality.”

July 24th, 2007 at 4:55 am