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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

An Angel at My Table (1990) by Jane Campion

Kerry Fox as New Zealand author Janet Frame.

Movie Review
An Angel at My Table (1990)
by Jane Campion
Criterion Collection #301

  An Angel At My Table is Jane Campion's 1990 bio-pic on New Zealand author Janet Frame. Frame was notably confined to a mental institution for 8 years in her mid 20s, and given "over 200 rounds of electro-shock,"  as the story goes, she was rescued from a "fast-track lobotomy" at the last minute when her book of short-stories won an award.  She was hastily deemed "cured" (decades later a board of English psychiatrists would issue a ruling that she was never schizophrenic).   Her new found status as a prize winning author was sufficient to get her a grant to travel to Europe, England and Spain in particular, where she was able to "live life."

  With a biography that itself evokes many of the literary themes of the mid to late 20th century: mental illness, early death of a sibling, loneliness, etc. there is an obvious question about whether (to quote the accompanying Criterion Collection essay by Amy Taubin, "Frame's autobiography is fictional or her fiction autobiographical or both."  Under both formulations, it makes for a good movie, or miniseries for that matter.  An Angel at My Table was originally shot as a television series, and its origins are revealed both by the three part one hour episodes (which correspond to the three volumes of her auto biography) and the fairly static "workmanlike" visual style, which is in sharp contrast to the stylistic virtuosity of Sweetie.

   The themes of artistic development and being an "outsider" is central to both the 1001 Books project and the Criterion Collection.  A high volume of "break through" projects by artists are based on the most interesting aspects of their personal history.  "Write about what you know" is a truism of 20th century college education, but a more accurate statement might be "Write about what you are."

   Janet Frame is emblematic of an artist turning personal flax into artistic gold, and it is easy to see why Campion, or any other artist would be interested in giving her life story the feature film treatment. 

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