Friday, February 18, 2011

The Highbrow Trickle-Down Theory

There’s this totally deliciously delivered monologue in the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, given by Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. Horrified by her assistant’s attitude (as exuded by Anne Hathaway) that she is somehow above the vanities and self indulgences of fashion, Priestly explains to her that while she may not give a shit about couture, the trends that are set on the runway trickle all the way down to “whatever discount bin” Hathaway buys her clothes from. Try as you can to escape the influences of high art, they’ll find you.

Catching up on my backlog of Grey’s Anatomy episodes last night (I am ashamed and horrified by the fact that this is my second in twenty-eight posts to reference this show, but whatever; even Achilles had his weakness), this little theory came to mind as the plot from the February 2nd episode unwound. In it, an Alzheimer’s patient, in his compromised lucidity, has fallen for a fellow patient in his nursing home, leaving his loving wife—who has stood by his side throughout the course of his illness—heartbroken. Knowing she’s no match for the disease’s sneaky punches, and that arguing with her husband’s invented reality will only upset him, the wife swallows her own feelings and humors his new romance as it is conducted right in front of her.

This was Streep/Devil reminiscent because that plot was strangely familiar to me. It's the same one that lies at the heart of the slightly more—well, at the right of sounding snobby—artistic narrative, the Alice Munro short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which was eventually adapted into the equally heart wrenching film Away from Her, starring Julie Christie.

When I first realized this parallel, I was a little pissed, truth be told. “Bear” is one of my all time favorite short stories, and I’m a proud owner of the DVD of that movie, despite the fact that it wasn’t widely released. (After being blown away by an early screening of it I tried to drag friends along to see it in theatres, but we couldn’t find one playing it, and in New York, no less!) Though I’m clearly a Grey’s fan, I didn’t feel like humoring their obvious attempt at ripping of one of my favorite pieces of art—dumbing it down and dramatizing it up. I had little doubt that one of the show’s producers was one of the few people who had seen that movie.

But after some thought, it occurred to me: the plot of that story moved me and stuck with me. That was, in fact, one of the reasons that I was so disappointed that more people didn’t have the opportunity to see it. And here it was, presented in a forum that does reach millions of viewers. It wasn’t quite as subtle and was a hell of a lot cornier, but the heart and the soul of the message was still there.

Now wait, before you go saying it, I’m not advocating plagiarism. The details, contexts and formats had changed (Munro’s version had a lot of buried demons wrestling below the plot, as any good short story does), and certainly no lines had been lifted. (I know because I love that story enough to know it by heart!) What I am saying is that as someone who is often quite frustrated that literary fiction doesn’t find as many consumers as commercial or genre fiction, or shows like Grey’s Anatomy, it’s nice to know that it's influencing pop art all the same.

In the end, Miranda Priestly didn’t turn out to be as wildly villainous as she first seemed—she maybe even had some points—and maybe literary fiction reaches the masses after all?

1 comment:

  1. Caroline! I've seen Away From Her and share your love for it. Also, trivia: the movie was filmed in Paris, Ontario, hometown of one Stephanie Kloss!