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Review: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

The economy of words is a literary device that is difficult to come by. It was accorded a prominent place in modernist literature, the most masterful writers of which deployed the artistry to an extent that rivals the beauty of poetry. Language had by then transcended its traditional role as a tool of expression, and revealed its nature as something akin to a magician’s trick. Novelists of this period began to explore and experiment with the various facets and potentials of language. In the case of D.H. Lawrence, for example, there would be no better way to articulate the complex human conditions than resorting to the repetition of a few significant epithets. Conversely, Ernest Hemingway would advice the aspiring writers to steer clear of superfluity at all costs- for him an absence of words always generates the loudest bang.

The development of modernism coincided at some point with the advent of motion picture, and curiously both share this penchant for textual ellipticism that invariably gives the narratives a capacity to mystify and unnerve with the lack of information conveyed. This may be in part why modernist literature has seemed so popular amongst the filmmakers, and how compatible it is to be adapted for screen, though these are, in turn, contingent on how well the director respond to the writer’s individual style, whilst not compromising his own.

It would thus be a prodigious challenge to be adapting works by as idiosyncratic a writer as Carson McCullers, who, like Hemingway, selected her words rather carefully and endowed her writing with a knowing naiveté that seems deceptively simplistic at first blush. Most of her characters are detached and impenetrable; the stories desolate and wanting of a hopeful prospect. Her debut, an instant national bestseller, The Heart of a Lonely Hunter, deals with themes like self-alienation and the illusion and disillusion with religion, sets in a mill town of Georgia during the 1930s, and features a motley of odd personages whose lives are woven together by fate and faith. Her next novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, is of lesser fame, but explores similar territory like the spiritual malaise that widens the distance between people, and the limited freedom of attaining true happiness in the age of repressed sensibility.

Other more flagrant themes like homosexuality, voyeurism, sadism seem, over years, to have taken central stage in the general perception of the novella. John Houston, in his 1967 adaptation of the work, thankfully doesn’t accede to the misapprehension. Though there are still moments in film where the director is obviously overplaying the element of suspense- the eerie music that accompanies scenes of built-up tension is truly annoying and incongruous with the dominant mood.

Marlon Brando is Major Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual who is unhappily married to the feisty, sassy, adulterous Leonora, played by Elizabeth Taylor. The couple is joined occasionally by their neighbor, the Langdons, he the timorous, spineless, whey-faced lover of Mrs. Penderton, and she the morose, frail, suffering patient of her husband’s infidelity and her own chronic depression. Observing from afar and silently meshing in their lives is Private Ellgee Williams, who makes a nocturnal habit of sneaking into Leonora’s room to watch her sleep. The story is set at an army base in Georgia, during “peacetime” as specified at the outset of the novel, though interestingly the book was published in 1941, when the nation was battening down the hatches for the coming war.

This peacetime may very well be a periodic respite attending the imminent storm. The atmosphere seems loaded with fear and uncertainties. A marked sense of contrariness starts rearing its head in men’s tenuous hold on relations with other people and their inner selves. The traditional values no longer hold good, but no one is courageous enough to pioneer a change.

Major Penderton is a victim of this embattled period, a square peg obdurately scraping the confines of a round hole. Brando’s nonpareil talent dazzles in the sequence when he is thrown off his wife’s favorite horse. Seized with a sudden rage he starts whipping the poor animal, his face grimaced by laughter and tears. He then collapses onto the ground, contrite and repulsed at his depraved moral; a naked Private Williams glides in and gently leads the horse away, whilst Penderton looks on, his moist eyes gleam with shocked admiration.

The critical reception of the film wasn’t well, though Houston considered it his best. Twelve years later he would be attempting another Southern Gothic classic, but this time with better success. His 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’ Connor’s Wise Blood seems many ways an undiluted Bourbon to Carson’s pure water with rain. It’d be tempting to wonder if Reflections were released in 1979, and Wise Blood 1967, the verdicts would reverse or be any different.


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