Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Modernism, Historicism and Julie Christie's Eyes

As an oblique follow on from my previous post about 1970's DIY habits, I've been thinking about period dramas. In particular I've been thinking about different periods of period dramas. Even though their setting is historical, such films are often more about the period in which they're made than the one in which they're set.

Take a film made in the late 1960's such as Far From The Madding crowd. It's a great film, but one of the most striking things about it if you watch it today are Julie Christie’s eyes. And Terence Stamp’s sideburns. Neither appear remotely correct for the period. Christie's eyes in particular are smudged with Kohl in an iconically late '60’s manner and her hair is made up in a beehive. Stamp’s sideburns are equally à la mode. These are not so much deliberate anachronisms as evidence of a distinct lack of interest in historical authenticity.

Far from the Madding Crowd is a Victorian period drama in as much as it is based on Hardy’s 1874 novel, but in many other respects it's a 1960’s film. Despite its period setting it looks like a 1960's film. Equally, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor’s 1963 epic Antony and Cleopatra plays fast and loose with historical verisimilitude. The interior sets for this film are completely outlandish, more redolent of a lavishly vulgar Las Vegas hotel than ancient Egypt. The fact that the film's narrative echoes the real life love affair of Burton and Taylor only increases the sense that the setting for the film, for all its self-consciously historic-epic quality, is secondary to the real story.

The muted colours and artfully dishevelled haircuts of 2005's Pride and Prejudice will no doubt become as outlandishly dated in time as Stamp's sideburns. The film's historical authenticity may be just as bogus but it also seems emblematic of a distinctly different sensibility. Pride and Prejudice is overflowing with a reverence for the past. It is as in love with its setting as the characters are with each other, the camera drooling over distressed paintwork and marble statues as if they were the real subject of the film.

Pride and Prejudice (Image source)

Not only that but there is a direct collusion between films like Pride and Prejudice and the heritage industry. The buildings and landscapes associated with such films become objects of increased touristic value as a result. In this sense period dramas form a sort of aesthetic propaganda wing of English Heritage. It's difficult to disassociate the relentless recycling of Austen adaptations from a more general and pervasive historical genuflection.

Is there a connection then between an attitude that had no time for the niceties of 19th century make-up and a lack of reverence for historic architecture? Is there a relationship between a late 1960's building such as Robin Hood Gardens, with its indifference to ideas of contexualism or 'fitting-in', and the equally startling modernity of Julie's Christie's eyes?


Harry Jordan said...

If Robin Hood garden's are the architectural equivalent of Julie Christie’s eyes, which buildings of today would you see as mirroring the dishevled aesthetic/historic romanticism of Pride and Prejudice? Or is current architecture not as in tune with it's pop culture as it used to be?

Charles Holland said...

Well the post related to a previous one about English Heritage's guide to improving residential streets through careful refurbishment. Pride and Prejudice's aesthetic and intent is very similar to that I would suggest. So, I suppose my point is that today's overt concern for historical authenticity and contextualism in general (rather than a single particular building) is analogous to P&P.

Murphy said...

I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear that there was actually quite a fair amount of CGI work done for Pride and Prejudice, mostly things like making the sky look more dramatic or removing buildings from the middle distance.

Charles Holland said...

Yes, that's interesting. Self-indulgent corner: my diploma project involved removing buildings and objects from views in the same sort of way, albeit with satirical intent.

I don't think I've really nailed this topic even though I've posted about it a few times but I think there is something very interesting and intriguing both about the digitalised representation of the past that you mention and the aesthetics of heritage in general.