Serial Nuns: Michelle Williams Gamaker’s The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten as Serial and Trans-Serial

Catherine M. Lord

Abstract


Introduction: Serial Space

“It feels …like the edge of the world; far more remote than it actually is, perhaps because it looks at such immensity” (Godden “Black,” 38). This is the priest’s warning to Sister Clodagh in Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel Black Narcissus. The young, inexperienced Clodagh leads a group of British nuns through the Indian Himalayas and onto a remote mountain top above Mopu. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger adapted Godden’s novel into the celebrated feature film, Black Narcissus (1947). Following the novel, the film narrates the nuns’ mission to establish a convent, school, and hospital for the local population. Yet, immensity moves in mysterious ways. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) loses her managerial grip. Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) cultivates wild flowers instead of vegetables. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) sheds nun’s attire for red lipstick and a Parisian dress. The young Indian woman Kanchi (Jean Simmons) becomes a force of libidinous disturbance. At the twilight of the British Empire, white, western nuns experience the psychical effects of colonialism at the precipice. Taking such cues from Pressburger and Powell’s film, Michelle Williams Gamaker, an artist, filmmaker, and scholar, responds to Black Narcissus, both film and novel. She does so through a radical interpretation of her own. 

Gamaker William’s 24-minute film, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten (forthcoming, London 2018) is a longer “short,” which breaks the mould of what scholar Linda Hutcheon would term an “adaptation” (2006). For Hutcheon, there is a double “mode of engagement” between an original work and its adapted form (22). On the one hand, there is a “transcoding” (22).  This involves “transporting” characters from a precedent work to its adapted form (11). On the other, there is an act of “creative interpretation” (22). The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten transports yet recreates the Indian “beggar girl” Kanchi, played by a “blacked up” white Hollywood actor Jean Simmons (Black Narcissus), into Williams Gamaker’s contemporary Kanchi, played by Krishna Istha. In this 2018 instalment, Kanchi is an Asian and transgender protagonist of political articulacy. Hence, Williams Gamaker’s film engages a double tactic of both transporting yet transforming Kanchi, as well as Sisters Clodagh and Philippa, from the feature film into The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten. To analyse Williams Gamaker’s film, I will make a theoretical jump off the precipice, stepping from Hutcheon’s malleable concept of adaptation into a space of “trans-serial” narrative.

In what follows, I shall read The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten as an “episode” in a serial. The prior episodes, Williams Gamaker’s House of Women (London 2017, Berlin 2018) is a short, fictional, and surreal documentary about casting the role of Kanchi. It can be read as the next episode in Kanchi’s many incarnations. The relationship between Sister Clodagh (Kelly Hunter as voiceover) and Kanchi in House of Women develops from one of confrontation to a transgender kiss in the climatic beat of The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten. Williams Gamaker’s film can be read as one of a series which is itself inflected with the elements of a “trans-serial.” Henry Jenkins argues that “transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels” (emphasis in original, “Transmedia”). I use the word “trans” to define the gap between novelistic texts and film. Throughout Williams Gamaker’s series, she uses many textual citations from Godden’s novel, and dialogue from Pressburger and Powell’s film. In other words, verbal elements as well as filmic images are adapted in Hutcheon’s sense and transmediated in Jenkins’s sense.  

To build the “serial” concept for my analysis requires re-working concepts from television studies. Jason Mittell introduces “narrative complexity” as the “redefinition of episodic forms under serial narration” (“Narrative,” 32). In serial TV, characters and narratives develop over a sequence of episodes and seasons. In serial TV, missing one episode can thwart the viewer’s reception of later ones. Mittell’s examples reveal the plasticity of the narrative complexity concept. He mentions TV series that play games with the audience’s expectations. As Mittell points out, Seinfeld has reflexive qualities (“Narrative,” 35) and Twin Peaks mixes genres (“Narrative,” 33). I would add that Lynch’s creative liberties offered characters who could appear and disappear while leaving their arcs hanging intriguingly unresolved. 

The creative possibilities of reflexivity via seriality, of characters who appear and disappear or return in different guises, are strategies that underpin William’s Gamaker’s short film serial. The third in her trilogy, The Eternal Return (in post-production 2018) fictionalises the life of Sabu, the actor who played the General’s son in Black Narcissus. Once again, the protagonist, this time male, is played by Krishna Istha, a non-binary transgender actor who, by taking all the lead roles in William’s Gamaker’s trilogy, grows over the serial as a malleable ethnic and transgender subject. Importantly, The Eternal Return carries residues of the characters from The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten by casting the same team of actors again (Charlotte Gallagher and myself Catherine Lord), and switching their genders. Istha played Kanchi in the previous two episodes. The General’s son, played by Sabu, courted Kanchi in Black Narcissus. In The Eternal Return, Istha crosses the character and gender boundary by playing Sabu. Such casting tactics subvert the gender and colonial hegemonies inherent in Pressburger and Powell’s film.

The reflexive and experimental approach of Williams Gamaker’s filmmaking deploys serial narrative tactics for its political goals. Yet, the use of “serial” needs to be nuanced. Glen Creeber sets out three terms: “episodic,” “series” and “serial.” For Creeber, a series provides continuous storylines in which the connection between episodes is strong. In the serial format, the connection between the episodes is less foregrounded. While it is not possible to enjoy stand-alone episodes in a serial, at the same time, serials produce inviting gaps between episodes. Final resolutions are discouraged so that there are greater narrative possibilities for later seasons and the audience’s own game of speculative storytelling (11).

The emerging “serial” gaps between Williams Gamaker’s episodes offer opportunities for political interpretation. From House of Women and The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten, Kanchi develops an even stronger political voice. Kanchi’s character arc moves from the wordless obedience of Pressburger and Powell’s feature to the transgender voice of post-colonial discourse in House of Women.  In the next episode, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten, Kanchi becomes Clodagh’s guide both politically, spiritually, and erotically.

I will read The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten as both my primary case-study and as the third episode in what I shall theorise to be a four-part serial. The first is the feature film Black Narcissus. After this is Williams Gamaker’s House of Women, which is then followed by The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten, my central case study here. There may be immediate objections to my argument that Williams Gamaker’s series can be read by treating Pressburger and Powell’s feature as the first in the series. After all, Godden’s novel could be theorised as the camouflaged pilot. Yet, a series or serial is defined as such when it is in the same medium. Game of Thrones (2011-) is a TV series that adapts George R.R. Martin’s novel cycle, but the novels are not episodes. In this regard, I follow Hutcheon’s emphasis on theorising adapted works as forged between different media, most commonly novels to films. The adaptive “deliveries” scatter through The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten with an ecological precision.

Eco Series

Ecological descriptions from Godden’s novel and Pressburger and Powell’s mise-en-scene are performed in The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten through Kelly Hunter’s velvety voiceover as it enjoys a painterly language: butterflies daub the ferns with “spots of ochre, scarlet, and lemon sherbet.” Hutcheon’s term transcoding usefully describes the channelling of particles from the novelist’s text into an intensified, ecological language and cinematic mise-en-scene. The intensification involves an ingestion of Godden’s descriptive prose, which both mimics and adds an adjectival and alliterative density. The opening descriptions of the nuns’ arrival in Mopu is a case in point. In the novel, the grooms joke about the nuns’ habits appearing as “snows, tall and white” (Godden “Black,” 1). One man remarks that they look like “a row of teeth” (Godden “Black,” 2). Williams Gamaker resists shots of nuns as Godden described them, namely on Bhotiya ponies. Rather, projected onto a white screen is an image of white and red flowers slowly coming into focus. Kelly Hunter’s voiceover describes the white habits as a set of “pearly whites” which are “hungry for knowledge” and “eat into the landscape.” White, western nuns in white habits are metaphorically implied to be like a consuming mouth, eating into Indian territories and Indian people.

This metaphor of colonial consumption finds its corollary in Godden’s memoirs where she describes the Pressburger, Powell, and Simons representation of Kanchi as “a basket of fruit, piled high and luscious and ready to eat” (“A House,” 24-5; 52).  The nun’s quest colonially consumes Mopu’s natural environment. Presumably, nuns who colonially eat consume the colonised Other like fruit. The Kanchi of the feature film Black Narcissus is a supporting character, performed by Simmons as mute, feral and objectified. If Kanchi is to release herself from the “fruity” projections of sexism and racism, it will be through the filmmaker’s aesthetic and feminist tactic of ensuring that planets, trees, fruits and flowers become members of the film cast. If in episode 1 (Black Narcissus), plants and Asian subalterns are colonised, in episode 2, House of Women, these fruits and flowers turn up as smart, young Asian women actors with degrees in law and photography, ready to hold their own in the face of a faceless interviewer. In episode 3, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten, it is important that Krishna Istha’s Kanchi, turning up like a magical character from another time and space (transformed from episode 1), commands the film set amidst an excess of flowers, plants and fruits. The visual overflow correlates with Kanchi’s assertiveness. Flowers and Kanchi know how to “answer back.”

Like Black Narcissus the feature, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten relies heavily on a mise-en-scene of horticultural and mountain ecology. Just as Michael Powell filmed at Pinewood and Leonardslee Gardens in East Sussex, Williams Gamaker used Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum roof Gardens and Sands Film Studios. The lusciousness of Leonardslee is film-intertextually echoed in the floral exuberance of the 2018 shots of Rotherhithe. After the crew have set up the classroom, interwoven with Kelly Hunter’s voiceover, there is a hard cut to a full, cinematic shot of the Leonardslee garden (fig. 1).

Video still, The Fruit is There to be Eaten

Then cutting back to the classroom, we see Kanchi calmly surveying the set, of which she is the protagonist, with a projection of an encyclopaedic display of the flowers behind her. The soundtrack plays the voices of young women students intoning the names of flowers from delphinium to lupens.

These meta-filmic moments are supported by the film’s sharp juxtaposition between classroom and outdoor scenes. In Pressburger and Powell’s school scenes, Sister Ruth attempts to teach the young General how to conjugate the French verb “recevoir.” But the lesson is not successfully received. The young General becomes aphasic, Kanchi is predictably mute and the children remain demure. Will colonialism let the Other speak? One way to answer back in episode 3 is through that transgressive discourse, the language of flowers.

In The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten, the young women study under Sister Clodagh and Sister Philippa (myself, Catherine Lord). The nuns teach botanical lists and their ecological contexts through rote learning. The young women learn unenthusiastically. What is highlighted is the ludicrous activity of repetition and abstractions. When knowledge becomes so objectified, so do natural environments, territories and people. Clodagh aligns floral species to British locations. The young women are relatively more engaged in the garden with Sister Philippa. They study their environment through sketching and painting a diverse range of flowers that could grow in non-British territory. Philippa is the now the one who becomes feral and silent, stroking stalks and petals, eschewing for the time being, the game of naming (fig. 2).

Video still, The Fruit is There to be Eaten

However, lessons with colonial lexicons will be back. The young women look at screen projections of flowers. Sister Philippa takes the class through an alphabet: “D is for Dogbright … L is for Ladies’ Fingers.” Clodagh whirls through a list of long, Latin names for wild flowers in British Woodlands. Kanchi halts Clodagh’s act of associating the flowers with the British location, which colonizes them. Kanchi asks: “How many of us will actually travel, and which immigration border will test our botanical knowledge?” Kanchi then presents a radically different alphabet, including “Anne is African … Ian is Intersex … Lucy loves Lucy.” These are British names attributed to Africans, Arabs, and Asians, many of their identities revealed to be LGBQT-POC, non-binary, transgender, and on the move. Clodagh’s riposte is “How do you know you are not travelling already?” The flowers cannot be pinned down to one location. They cannot be owned by one nation.

Like characters who travel between episodes, the travelling flowers represent a collision of spaces that undermine the hegemonies of race, gender and sexuality. In episode 1, Black Narcissus the feature film, the western nuns face the immensities of mountain atmosphere, ecology and an unfamiliar ethnic group. In episode 2, House of Women, the subalterns have transformed their role, achieving educational and career status. Such political and dramatic stakes are raised in episode 3, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten. There is a strong focus on the overlapping oppressions of racial, colonial and ecological exploitation. Just as Kanchi has a character arc and serial development, so do plants, fauna, fruits, flowers and trees. 

‘Post’-Space and Its Atmosphere

The British Empire colonised India’s ecological space. “Remember you and your God aren't on British Territory anymore” declares the auditioning Krishna Istha in House of Women. Kanchi’s calm, civil disobedience continues its migration into The Fruit is There to be Eaten between two simultaneously existing spaces, Mopu and Rotherhithe, London. According to literature scholar Brian McHale, postmodern worlds raise ontological questions about the dramatic space into which we are drawn. “Which” worlds are we in? Postmodern worlds can overlap between separate spaces and different temporalities (McHale 34-35). As McHale notes, “If entities can migrate across the semipermeable membrane that divides a fictional world from the real, they can also migrate between two different fictional worlds” (35).

In The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten, the semipermeable membrane between it and Black Narcissus folds together the temporalities of 1947 and 2018, and the terrains of India and London. Sister Philippa tells a Kanchi seeking Mopu, that “My dear, you are already here.” This would seem odd as Sister Philippa describes the death of a young man close to Saint Mary’s Church, London. The British capital and woodlands and the Himalayas co-exist as intensified, inter-crossing universes that disrupt the membranes between both colonial and ecological space-time, or what I term “post-space.”

Williams Gamaker’s post-spaces further develop Pressburger and Powell’s latent critique of post-colonialism. As film scholar Sarah Street has observed, Black Narcissus the film performs a “post-colonial” exploration of the waning British Empire: “Out of the persistence of the colonial past the present is inflected with a haunting resonance, creating gaps and fissures” (31). This occurs in Powell’s film in the initial Calcutta scenes. The designer Alfred Junge made “God shots” of the nuns at dinner, creating from them the iconic shape of a cross. This image produces a sense of over-exactness. Once in the mountains, it is the spirit of exactitude that deteriorates. In contrast, Williams Gamaker prefers to reveal the relative chaos of setting up her world. We watch as the crew dress the school room. Un-ceremoniously, Kanchi arrives in shorts before she picks up a floral dress bearing the label “Kanchi.” There is then a shot in which Kanchi purveys the organised set, as though she is its organiser (fig. 3).

Video still, The Fruit is There to be Eaten

Post-spaces are rich in atmosphere. The British agent Dean tells Clodagh in Black Narcissus the film that the mountain “is no place to put a nunnery” due its “atmosphere.” In the climactic scene of The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten, Kanchi and Clodagh face two screens revealing the atmospheric projection of the high mountains, the black cut between them visible, like some shadowy membrane. Such aesthetic strategies continue Powell’s use of technical artifice. Street details the extensive labour of technical and craft work involved in creating the artificial world of Black Narcissus, its mountains, artificial colours, and hence atmosphere, all constructed at Pinewood studios. There was a vast amount of matte painting and painting on glass for special effects (19).

William Gamaker’s screens (projection work by Sophie Bramley and Nick Jaffe) reflexively emphasise atmosphere as artifices. The atmosphere intensifies with the soundscape of mountain air and Wayne Urquhart’s original and haunting music. In Powell and Pressburger’s feature, Brian Easdale’s music also invokes a sense of mystery and vastness. Just as TV series and serials maintain musical and mise-scene-scene signatures from one episode to another, so too does Williams Gamaker reframe her precursor’s cinematic aesthetics with that of her own episode. Thus, serial as stylistic consistency is maintained between episodes and their post-spaces.

At the edge of such spaces, Kanchi will scare Clodagh by miming a tight-rope walk across the mountain: it is both real and pretend, dramatic, but reflexively so. Kanchi walks a membrane between colliding worlds, between colonialism and its transgression. In this episode of extreme spirituality and eroticism, Kanchi reaches greater heights than in previous episodes, discoursing on the poetics of atmosphere: “… in the midst of such peaks, one can draw near what is truly placeless … the really divine.” Here, the membrane between the political and cultural regions and the mountains that eschew even the human, is about to be breached. Kanchi relates the legend of those who go naked in the snow. These “Abominable Men” are creatures who become phantoms when they merge with the mountain. If the fractures between locations are too spacious, as Kanchi warns, one can go mad. In this episode 3, Kanchi and Clodagh may have completed their journeys. 

In Powell and Pressburger’s interpretation, Sister Ruth discards nun’s attire for a Parisian, seductive dress and red lipstick. Yet, she does so for a man, Dean. However, the Sister Clodagh of 2018 is filmed in a very long take as she puts on an elegant dress and does her make-up. In a scene of philosophical intimacy with Kanchi, the newly dressed Clodagh confesses her experience of “immensity.” As they break through the erotic membrane separating their identities, both immersed in their full, queer, transgender kiss, all racial hierarchies melt into atmosphere (fig. 4).

Video still, The Fruit is There to be Eaten

Conclusion: For a Pitch 

By making a film as one episode in a series, Williams Gamaker’s accomplishment is to enhance the meeting of narrative and political aims. As an arthouse film serial, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten has enabled definitions of “serial” to migrate from the field of television studies. Between Hutcheon’s “adaptation” and Mittell and Creeber’s articulations of “narrative complexity,” a malleable concept for arthouse seriality has emerged. It has stretched the theoretical limits of what can be meant by a serial in an arthouse context. By allowing the notion of works “adapted” to occur between different media, Henry Jenkins’ broader term of “transmedia storytelling” (Convergence) can describe how particles of Godden’s work transmigrate through episodes 1, 2, and 3, where the citational richness emerges most in episodes 3, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten.

Because one novel informs all the episodes while each has entirely different narratives and genres, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten is not a serial adaptation, as is Game of Thrones. It is an experimental serial inflected with trans-serial properties. Kanchi evolves into a postcolonial, transgender, ecological protagonist who can traverse postmodern worlds. Perhaps the witty producer in a pitch meeting might say that in its serial context, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten is like a cross between two fantasy TV serials, still to be written: Transgender Peaks meets Kanchi Is the New Black. The “new black” is multifaceted and occupies multi-worlds in a post-space environment.  

References

Creeber, Glen. Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen. London: BFI, 2004.

Godden, Rumer. 1939. Black Narcissus: A Virago Modern Classic. London: Hatchette Digital, 2013.

———. A House with Four Rooms. New York: William Morrow, 1989. 

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

———. “Transmedia, 202: Further Reflections.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan 1 Aug. 2011. 1 May 2012 <http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html>.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.

Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986.

Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40.  

Street, Sarah. Black Narcissus. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Filmography

Black Narcissus. Dirs. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Pinewood Studios, 1947.

House of Women. Dir. Michelle Williams Gamaker. Cinema Suitcase, 2017.

The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten. Dir. Michelle Williams Gamaker. Cinema Suitcase, 2018.

The Eternal Return. Dir. Michelle Williams Gamaker. Cinema Suitcase, 2018-2019.


Keywords


narrative complexity, colonialism, transmedia storytelling, gender, race,



Copyright (c) 2018 Catherine M. Lord

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