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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Portrait of Jennie


The movie Portrait of Jennie left a strong and lasting impression on me when I first saw it on TV in my early teens. Re-watching it now (available on YouTube here), it holds up remarkably well. The cinematography, shot on location in New York City (very realistic) and Massachusetts (not so realistic), is beautiful, especially the foggy and moonlit night scenes. Some scenes were clearly shot through a gauze or cloth to make them look like oil paintings on canvases. The soundtrack is also fabulous, in which Dmitri Tiomkin cannibalized several Debussy's themes (I only recognize "Faun") rather perfectly. It walks a fine line between a cheesy ghost story and a palatable fantasy about time distortion. I think what made it work well is the early skating scene in broad daylight, which establishes a solid and sunny presence for the female character.

I see some degree of imitation of Portrait of Jennie in at least two later time-related fantasy novels (both were also adapted for screen): Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Matheson even used the same device of a painting as a means of freezing time. In my opinion neither achieves the same degree of ghostliness and whimsy as Robert Nathan and the movie. Matheson's novel is a bit overlong and overwrought, while Niffenegger's writing is utterly unreadable and puke inducing.

The only complaint I have about the movie is the casting. Both Jennifer Jones (28) and Joseph Cotten (43!) are too old for their roles. On the other hand, if the star weren't Jones, David O. Selznick would not have thrown loads of money at the production and insisted on shooting all the outdoor Central Park scenes on location.

When I saw the movie in the mid-1980s, China was just opening up and imported a number of classic movies through some kind of contract with CBS and showed them on TV. Among these movies were some Shirley Temple fluff. Portrait of Jennie was perhaps my favorite of the bunch. Around the same time I saw "The Third Man" (incidentally also starring Joseph Cotten) at least twice. Without knowing any background about them, I was utterly fascinated by these two movies, even though I couldn't understand half of the context and meaning (especially "The Third Man"). The movies that went down easily and happily left no impression whatsoever. In fact I was quite bored with the song and dance stuff or the cute Shirley with golden curls.

Indeed it seems that I had excellent taste at an early age --- another piece of evidence to support the theory that taste is an instinct. You either have it or you don't. Shit taste is rampant, but that cannot be helped.

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