October 30, 2000 [The House of Mirth]
When Scorsese approached Edith Wharton’s world a few years back, he certainly saw much—serviettes in nappe plié order, an arsenal of forks, crystal-beaded valences and burnished portraits looking down--and running throughout, a sound, a long note on a distant violin--but the distance didn’t matter: One could hear the strain, the unbearable--but somehow still borne--sound of life restrained by false nobility. Everyone was surprised that he could pull it off, could make a picture not drenched in blood--but who needs blood when the tension of violence is ever-present, the kind of damage done with a flat look or a raised chin or a withdrawn hand? He’d found a world in The Age of Innocence as full of whisperings as Paulie’s in Goodfellas--a house where no one speaks directly until it’s all over, the cops are gone and the moment has passed.
I was running though the channels a year or so ago and landed on an image of the Moon passing behind clouds. Choral music swelled, a rising melancholy--and the camera stayed still, not so much watching the Moon as letting it be, allowing it to wait and fade. The song and the movie was Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, and that’s all I’ve seen of it. But as I sat there I found my chest flooded with the kind of warmth the boy feels at the end of Joyce’s story “Araby” when he finds himself alone in the dark, “a creature driven and derided by vanity”--no: not vanity, but humility--my own as I watched and listened, completely unaware of it as the closing minutes of a film, simply emptied of the strength to consider myself anything but a man watching.
And what does Davies give me to watch in The House of Mirth? Most of all Gillian Anderson’s face, the darling that Fox Mulder, the dope, never deserved. I read somewhere that Davies saw her as a John Singer Sargent portrait, an infamous woman daring to do as she thought right; and he lavishes on Anderson’s Lily Bart all the beautiful tragic light New York in 1905 can provide, her luminous face slipping in and out of shadow until everything goes dark. It was beautiful and heart-breaking--but of course I’d watched all of this already, in the last five minutes of The Long Day Closes--and again, I’ve never seen the movie itself, so I don’t know if I’m doing it damage. But I know--I’ve seen--that Lily’s shame and anguish is lit like the boy’s face at the end of “Araby,” where the hall grows dark—and, as I think of the two of them weeping as the light dies, I won’t blame their vanity--I’m not sure I can even call it that; just a desire for night not to fall and for a chance to look up and see the Moon break free.