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Why all the period films?

So Mark Lawson writes about Timeless taboos: why 19th-century novels appeal to film-makers in the Guarniad, presumably because there needed to be something in the paper in case the Sri Lanka failed to come to a shockingly sudden and exciting conclusion. Also, it seems there will be new films of Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations and Anna Karenina, and why not.

Why not, alas, isn’t much of an analysis, and so Mr. Lawson writes about all the usual reasons—the original texts are in the public domain, and thus cheapish; the name are familiar, and thus have a likely audience (the same as sequels and nonliterary remakes, only cheaper, see above); and most of all, the works are simply good, and filmably good. Mr. Lawson goes on, however, to make a point that the headline writer gets completely wrong: these works and many like them rely on transgression of taboos that no longer exist. Class divides, adultery, breeding, money. “Fiction is driven by friction and taboo but, in most parts of contemporary society, we have created a society in which there are few obstacles to people doing what they want or being with the person they desire. ”

Here’s the thing—I think Mr. Lawson almost gets to a really interesting point, but doesn’t quite. There are still taboos, of course. Mr. Lawson talks about the recent movie and film centering on a mother’s dislike of her son, and he bemoans the “depressing regularity” of child abuse turning up in crime dramas. I wonder of Mr. Lawson simply can’t see the rest of them, the taboos that exist but are ingrained into our culture. Taboos against polyamory, for an obvious example, or drug dealing, or prostitution, all of which have turned up on American cable shows recently. More, off the top of my head: incest, poverty, obesity, autism, abortion, depression, mental illness of various kinds, infertility, drunkenness, low libido, heavily accented English, post-traumatic stress disorder. Some would make better movies than others, of course, but some of that is in the handling. I can recall a recent romantic movie where the point was that the woman was obese, and another where the point was that the man had Asperger’s syndrome. Another where the point was that the man had a sort of unspecified mental illness, something bipolarish, although I saw that one (not the others) and they didn’t play up the social aspect where she had to explain to her friends about his behavior—but they could.

No, what I think Mr. Lawson is missing, here, is that those Victorian stories have their characters violating taboos that the audience does not share, and thus the audience maintains sympathy for the lead female who wears trousers, or sleeps with the gardener, or practices medicine. We react to Society’s censure by increasing our identification with the character; were we there (we think) we would be on her side. The story of a woman who (f’r’ex) attempts to put herself through law school by dancing at a strip club, and her romance with the scion of an old New England family—I think the audience would have to be constantly reassured that the exotic dancer does not ever, ever, ever give a blow job for a fifty, not even when she needs to buy the second-hand Contracts text. Even then, I suspect the movie couldn’t be a wide success unless the audience is at the very least allowed to believe that the stripping is unusually demure, with T and A at least notionally covered (as with Gypsy, now that I think of it).

Now, Gentle Readers, I don’t mean to exempt myself from this stuff. I want characters I can like and identify with, as well as characters I can enjoy hating. Villains, too, benefit from this stuff, as the stern guardian seems much less unreasonable when he is preventing the heroine from dating a drug-dealing ex-con. And many of the taboos are taboos for a reason—I would strongly object to my daughter eventually romancing a drug-dealing ex-con, honestly, or dancing at a strip club to put herself through law school. Or going to law school at all, actually, although that I would keep my mouth shut about. Anyway, my point is not that I think people should make more mainstream movies, romances and comedies, set in the present day and dealing with current taboos. No, I think that difference is a perfectly good reason to enjoy period movies. As are the thing about copyright, and the thing about the low-risk audience, and the thing about (some of them, anyway) being really good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,