The Rainbow (1989) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Back when I was a young man starting out with The Southland Corporation, I took the company's battery of personality tests to see if I was fit to make the move into management. I reported dutifully for my score analysis but was losing interest as the personnel seemed to be droning on about my obvious plusses and minuses. Then one thing caught my attention. I had scored quite high in a characteristic called "femininity." There's some subtle test craftsmanship, eh? Let's hope that the testing company has used the last thirty years to come up with a better name for that characteristic. Of course I wondered what was so feminine about me. I thought I was what society generally considered to be an average guy. I read the sports pages first, then the front page.
I asked the personnel guy which questions had affected that particular characteristic. He should know, I figured, even though his name was Milton, because nobody would ever call him Milton, or even Milt. Nobody dared to call him anything but Colonel Eddy, or just plain Colonel. I mean the guy had actually been a damned colonel. You can't get any more macho than a forkin' colonel, assuming that the rank wasn't earned in the British army. His wasn't. He was a full Marine bird. That's even more macho than a general. In peacetime, generals have to kiss the asses of senators and higher-ranking generals, and have to attend cocktail parties and play political games to get where they want to go in their sophisticated career paths, but a Marine colonel is a real two-fisted guy. He would be a general except that he says exactly what's on his mind, and damn the consequences if any lily-livered civilian doesn't like what he has to say.
So Colonel Eddy showed me some of my answers to the forced choices.
There was the damning evidence inscribed forever in Number 2 pencil. I had answered "read a book," thereby condemning my psychological profile to a lifetime of limp-wristedness. Jesus, I thought, maybe I should start using the ladies' room.
Then the personnel maven came to the single most heavily weighted question, the one which had officially set off the wimp alarm, casting my official score irretrievably out of the Uncle Scoopy side of the ledger and into the Auntie Scoopy column.
Holy shit, what had I done? I had admitted right there in black and white that I wanted to be a florist. Apparently, this is a choice made so infrequently by real men that the burly, close-cropped ex-colonel could not help but ask me, "What could conceivably have prompted you to make that choice?" I got off what I thought was one of the best lines of my life.
"Well, Colonel", I replied, "I don't give a fuck about flowers, but I never heard of anyone dying of Pink Lung."
I guess that was manly enough, because I got the management job, and a lifetime career in the fast-paced, macho, damn-the-torpedoes world of Slurpee sales.
In much the same way, D.H. Lawrence got a lifetime career as a writer.
Lawrence was born to a coal-mining family in the Midlands. His dad was one of those rugged miners who worked hard and drank hard. The colliery towns were filled with such types, and the young boys of that world generally couldn't wait to follow their dads into the pits. Not many of them would have thought for a second about the possibility of answering "a florist" on that personality test. They'd go to school until they were fourteen, as prescribed by law, studying and reading only as much as required to avoid a caning, sometimes not even that much. They sorely tested their teachers with surly and rowdy behavior, and they roughhoused together when their time was their own. On their fourteenth birthdays, they'd get as drunk as a skunk and prepare to begin their adult lives down in the mines.
Little Bert Lawrence didn't much like hanging around with those rough boys, with their hunting and their fighting and their lack of curiosity about the world. The boys beat him up when they had the chance. He liked to play with the girls when he played with children at all, which was seldom. He didn't even go to school that much. Mostly he was just hanging around the house, acting frail, listening to his mother. Lawrence biographer John Worthen wrote that Bert was, "a sickly child, who had been bullied as 'mard-arsed' - soft - when young and who had preferred the company of girls to boys and of books to either."
In other words, if Lawrence had taken that Southland personality test, he would have chosen to be a florist, not a coal miner.
Since there were not many floral careers available in small colliery towns, his next choice was teaching. Unfortunately, he did not have the aptitude for it. In those days, a teacher had to be a pretty tough cookie to command the discipline of those kids who were only waiting to turn fourteen so they could get drunk and descend into the mines. It was no better in London. Lawrence was not a tough cookie by any stretch of the imagination. He was a momma's boy, and never really had a strong role model. By the time Bert was five, his dad was 46, twilight time for a hard-boozing coal miner. Lawrence's mother increasingly treated her husband as a drunken stumblebum, berated him and his life to the children, and told her sons that someday they would take the teetotal pledge, become clerks or teachers, and would not grow up believing that women should be subservient to men. She emasculated her husband and Bert, whom she raised to be too gentle and sensitive to control a class of kids. Despite the age difference, the students ran roughshod over Lawrence the teacher, just as others once had over Lawrence the student. His headmaster had no sympathy for a wimpy teacher and advised him to seek a different career.
His next choice was to get more education so that he could teach at a higher level, but he had neither the desire nor the knack for upper level scholarship. The fact that he liked to read books did not automatically imply that he had any academic genius. So he spent some time working in factories and doing some bookkeeping, looking for his true vocation, and writing some poetry. He had befriended some women who introduced him to the pleasures of the arts in London, then he came to be known by some writers and some editors of literary journals, and he showed them his poems. They were blown away, not so much by the actual literary efforts as by the remarkable contrast between Lawrence's background and his writing. As it turned out, young D.H. Lawrence was exactly what the times demanded. The British intelligentsia at the turn of the century had a strong leftist and egalitarian bent, and the progressives all sought fervently to demonstrate that the class barriers in society were artificial and arbitrary. Lawrence was a sensitive poet despite a thick Midlands accent, a humble wardrobe, unrefined manners, and a coal mining father. In other words, he was living proof that a refined artist could come from a humble beginning, so in November of 1909, when he was 24, his first poems were published in a literary journal, and his life as a writer had begun.
It went nowhere for years. More than eight years later, in February of 1918, he was desperate for money. "In another fortnight I shall not have a penny to buy bread and margarine," he wrote to his agent. He thought things couldn't get any worse. They could. On the 11th of September that year, his 33rd birthday, he was called up for his military physical. He had been conscripted into World War 1, despite his known opposition to the war and the fact that his wife was German. He never was called to duty and the war ended, but another ten years later, his lot still had not improved much. He was writing, but not making a living wage.
Success finally came to him in 1927-1929, with the publication of the Lady Chatterley editions. John Worthen, director of the D.H. Lawrence Centre in Lawrence's home county at the University of Nottingham, wrote in his Lawrence Autobiography
The success which had eluded Lawrence as a philosophical romantic novelist finally came to him as a pornographer. The literary world, which had essentially ignored him for two decades, came to his defense once his work came under attack by churches and censors. There is nothing that unites writers like the threat of censorship. Lady Chatterley's Lover ignited a firestorm of knee-jerk praise as well as knee-jerk condemnation, almost all of the reaction on both sides from people who had never read it. The conservatives attacked it simply because it was sexually explicit. The literary world came to its defense simply because the conservatives attacked it. Lawrence finally became famous just before he was to die.
The impact of that work was truly astounding. There is virtually no doubt that if Lawrence had died in 1926, having written all of his major works except Lady Chatterley, he would now be just another of the completely forgotten English writers of the Victorian and post-Victorian eras. With the international notoriety gained from the Chatterley controversies, Lawrence's reputation was completely rehabilitated. Three of his novels were chosen by the board of the Modern Library as being among the Top 100 of the century (The Rainbow, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers).
That selection is, frankly, absurd. D.H Lawrence wasn't a great writer or a great thinker. He was a man who wrote "opinion novels" - a classic sub-genre of English Fiction in which the dialogue consists of people just blathering out condescending and unsupported opinions. The women say things like, "I do so think it's ever so much more lovely and romantic to have Polish heritage," "Desire is the source of all good and truth," and other such tommyrot of a nature neither disputable or supportable so that, if such things were uttered by a nearby person in real life, you'd excuse yourself and find someone more interesting to talk to. When a Lawrence woman is approached by a solicitous mining administrator who says. "Careful, we're using dynamite here, and you could be injured if you don't move," the woman will undoubtedly fail to move, instead delivering a lecture on how the mines should be closed.
Many of Lawrence's opinions have been remembered because they turned out to be quite right and quite modern. Women did want to break away from the dominance of the traditional husband-wife relationship and to form independent careers and lives. People from the lower classes, if given the opportunities, were perfectly capable of performing in any role normally reserved for the aristocracy or bourgeoisie. Women did think about sexual pleasure, and did lust after animalistic men. Religion did lose its stranglehold on European society. Sexual explicitness did become commonplace in modern fiction.
What made him so prescient in these matters?
On the other issues, the ones which he could not deduce from his own experiences and influences, his opinions seemed far less astute. As noted earlier, Lawrence was neither a man of great intellect nor great education. His novels (and his letters) can be completely embarrassing to read when he discusses Jews, or Mexicans, for example. Others believe that Lawrence is not at all modern in other ways, and that he patronizes Africans and objectifies women.
I don't know if it is right to measure an author of fiction by the merit of his opinions, but I do know that I don't much like his writing, and that does seem like a pretty reasonable criterion to apply to an author. His fiction is filled with pointless digressions, his vocabulary is repetitious (note how many times he uses the words "corrupt" or "corruption" in these three paragraphs), the behavior of his characters is romantic and unrealistic, and his wordsmithing is woefully imprecise.
That would refer, of course, specifically to the bare denuding as opposed to the less common unbare denuding.
A modern filmmaker has a great problem in bringing a D.H. Lawrence story to celluloid. If Lawrence's great talent were characterization, or dialogue, or plotting, it would be simpler. A good plot in 1927 is still a good plot today. But how does one recreate the impact of Lawrence's work when that impact boils down to shock? What was shocking in 1927 is no longer shocking today. The answer is that the filmmaker must create something that shocks today's audiences the way Lawrence shocked his own time. Over the years, director Ken Russell has done quite a good job of shocking people. Russell first interpreted Women in Love in 1969, and included an extended nude wrestling match between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, complete with extensive frontal nudity from both of them. Russell must have instinctively known that the shock value would hold up. 35 years later, that scene is still outrageous by today's standards. To put it in modern terms, imagine Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt wrestling stark naked and sweaty, in close contact for five minutes - with nothing left to the imagination, all of their organs rubbing together, on display to the camera.
Two decades after he made Women in Love, Russell finally got around to the prequel, The Rainbow, which is what I'm actually supposed to be writing about here. These two novels were originally to have been part of one tri-generational family epic called The Sisters, but the length of the work got out of control, so Lawrence split it into two separate books. He might just as well have split it into four books, because The Rainbow essentially consists of three separate stories. The first third is devoted to the grandparents of the characters in Women in Love, and the middle third to their parents. It is not until the final third that the reader enters the lives of the two sisters whose lives form the basis of Women in Love. Russell only chose (wisely, I think) to dramatize the final third of The Rainbow, the part which contains the same central characters as Women in Love.
Russell really struggled to find a "hook" to get this film to match the shock value of his earlier one, and he pulled off a casting coup that worked in its time and place. One of the constantly naked lesbians was played by Sammi Davis, who had grown up as an innocent little girl on British TV. Her participation in hot girl-on-girl sex scenes probably had about the same shock value in the UK as if Annette had done them after the Mickey Mouse Club. But that casting trick is rooted in a specific time and place. Away from that context, The Rainbow's sensuality doesn't seem either original or very daring. It was not very controversial in 1989 outside of Britain, and is not now. Although Russell's version of Women in Love was made two decades before his interpretation of The Rainbow, the earlier film still shocks us today, while the later makes us think, "Yawn. Beautiful nudity. Women together. Good stuff, but been there, done that." It is simply not as provocative in our time as D.H. Lawrence was in his, and thus it cannot create a cinematic equivalent of the novel's original impact.
I wonder. Is this the only time anyone has every criticized Ken Russell for not being shocking enough?
Return to the Movie House home page