Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Visionary: Prouty was right


Olive Higgins Prouty wrote the novels on which Now, Voyager and Stella Dallas were based, and she helped out the young Sylvia Plath with money and thereby wound up as "Philomena Guinea" in The Bell Jar. I know all this from Wikipedia, which I consulted because I just watched Now, Voyager.

Wiki says:
Initial production of the Prouty novel had to take into account that European locales would not be possible in the midst of a war, despite the novelist's insistence on using Italy as the main setting. Her quirky demands for vibrant colors and flashbacks shot in black and white with subtitles were similarly disregarded.
Okay, it was quirky to expect Warner Brothers, or anyone in Hollywood, to get so lively in 1942. But it still sounds like Prouty had a good idea. Color for the present, black and white for the past -- yeah. I mean, it makes so much sense that by now it may be a cliche. Subtitles, well, I'd have to see what she had in mind, but still ... could work, could be useful.

Overall, it sounds like she was going for something a bit Oliver Stone-ish but decades before he and psychodelics were ever introduced. I like Oliver Stone, so I'm impressed. "Quirky." The three-name lady was right. 

The  book/movie is a document of the early therapeutic culture. Wiki says Prouty had psychoanalytic leanings, but I didn't see much of them here. Now, Voyager celebrates the idea of emotional therapy, just emotional therapy in general -- not even the talking cure, let alone something as specific as Freudianism.

The movie is about Bette Davis's nervous breakdown and her subsequent vigorous rebirth thanks to enlightened therapeutic practices. That is, Claude Rains runs a country sanitarium, she stays there, and while she's there people treat her nicely and she's away from her horrible, browbeating mother. Then she loses weight, dresses up sharp, and goes on an ocean cruise where nobody knows her and she can be her new self. Before she sails, she reads a note that Claude Rains left her. His voice says: "The untold want by life and land ne'er granted / Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find." Apparently the words are the whole of a Walt Whitman poem called "The Untold Want," to which Prouty added a comma for her title.

The movie centers on three basic beliefs undergirding the therapeutic mentality: that persistent emotional misery can be explained by what a person experienced as a child (most especially by the behavior of mom and dad); that the unhappiness can be cured by someone who has a medical degree or something near and who uses the equivalent of modern medicine's hygenic operating environment (the sanitarium in Voyager, the impersonality required of practitioners of Freudian analysis, the "safe place" idea in modern-day talk therapy); and that no cure will happen unless the patient takes a risk, makes a stake in his/her life, decides that he/she is going to get more out of it than he/she has been getting -- you've got to start living out loud, as the saying goes. 

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