Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An Angel At My Table

"An Angel at My Table" (Jane Campion, 1990) Incredible tale of the New Zealand author who was institutionalized for schizophrenia, and narrowly avoided a leucotomy procedure* by winning a prestigious book award. Talk about your narrow escapes. But escapes were what Janet Frame specialized in, from her "magic realism" writing style to her globe-trotting adventures that took her to England and Spain, while keeping herself locked inside her own creative mind.

Partly due to her diagnostic history, and partly due to her "odd duckishness" Frame had a ying-yang non-relationship with Society. The film portrays her as "odd man out" in various capacities, the one Campion seems to relish most is that while she is being socially shunned by a group of boorishly egotistical literati, she is the only one of them that has been critically acclaimed...or, for that matter, even published, already achieving what the full-of-themselves coffee klatsches only hope to accomplish. They dismiss her for her dowdy clothes and chia-pet hairstyle out of hand, not bothering to consider that they couldn't tell a book (they hadn't written) by its cover.

Made for television, the film is more conventionally framed than most Campion films, known for their stark use of isolating empty space, and sometimes fractured story-telling style, but Campion gets compelling performances from the three women playing Frame—Karen Fergusson, Alexia Keogh, and finally, settling on Kerry Fox for the second half of the film exploring the author's wandering adulthood. As an introduction to Campion's work, this is a good start, with a compelling true story with a straight-forward approach to the aspects of magic-realism that infuse her work.

My favorite shot of "An Angel at My Table:" Janet "does the twist" by herself
in the dark by the light of her camper/writing-garret.

* A leucotomy was a specific form of lobotomy back in the dark ages when the practice was given enough medical credence to actually give a unique name to it rather than calling it what it was—hammering an ice-pick behind someone's eye-ball to sever neural connections in the brain. I'm wondering if insurance companies covered that.

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