We offer up this extract from Things I Learned at Art School by Megan Dunn as a heady ode to the late, beautiful actor Julian Sands, the heartthrob in the evergreen film adapted from EM Forster’s novel A Room with a View.
I recently rented A Room with a View from my local video store. At home I inserted it in the player and got these options:
— Play Movie
— Scene Selection
— Set Up
— Photo Galleries
In 1991, the young man named after the poet saw our new video player on a brief visit to our small granny flat. ‘Even you have a VCR,’ he said.
His parents lived in a big house up the hill in Kawaha Point that they actually owned, but the one status symbol they didn’t own yet was a video player.
I said nothing. The VCR was second-hand. When Mum first brought it home it didn’t even work — a detail I didn’t share with my would-be boyfriend. The VCR and I already had a history.
One night a cockroach inched out of the slot: brown, crunchy and golden, its antennae waving. Turns out that’s why the video player wouldn’t play any of the videos we’d rented from the store. The cockroach was very clever. It had dismantled the mechanism inside the video player. Mum’s boyfriend was clever, too. He flipped the VCR over and unscrewed it. Inside he found the nest. The cockroaches were stowaways from the garage sale where Mum had bought the second-hand VCR. It was an inauspicious introduction to a piece of kit that would play such a pivotal role in my life. Fast forward a few short years to art school, and videotape was my medium. But what was my message?
In 1991 my best friend Natalie and I rented A Room with a View from the shop. We shoved it in the slot . . . but how to tell the story of watching A Room with a View — uncut, uninhibited — without the cockroaches coming out?
Cockroaches have eyes — in fact their vision is very advanced. They have almost 360-degree vision of the world around them. They can also see in the dark, which must have helped during their brief tenure inside our VCR.
How To Get Rid of Roaches
— Cut them off from food.
— Eliminate their hiding places.
— Put out bait — but don’t spray.
— Seal up entry points.
A Room with a View is a Merchant and Ivory film made in 1985 that is based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same title published in 1908. Miss Lucy Honeychurch (played by the actress Helena Bonham Carter, then nineteen years old) and her cousin and chaperone, Miss Charlotte Bartlett (played by the actress Maggie Smith, then fifty-six), arrive in Florence for a European adventure. They are staying in the Pension Bertolini and have been promised a view of the River Arno, but when they arrive their room instead looks out on a courtyard and rooftops. WTF?
This opening chapter of both the book and the film is titled ‘A Room with No View’.
“This is not at all what we were led to expect,” says Miss Bartlett, the prim-lipped chaperone.
“I thought we were to see the Arno,” says Miss Honeychurch, the young hottie.
All the while their faces — Helena in that fetching hat with a brim — framed by the window so that we know exactly whose view we are getting. The last strains of the classical aria ‘O mio Babbino Caro’ sung by Kiri Te Kanawa waft over the scene, and the swell and swoon of the music let the audience know there will be plenty of good views up ahead . . .
Natalie and I had two favourite scenes in A Room with a View. ‘Italian Adventures’ is a very promising chapter title and I’m pleased to tell you that this scene in the film delivers. Helena Bonham Carter is driven by carriage to the rustic countryside. She wears a white-brimmed hat, a white frock and carries a parasol: her costume a testament to her virginity, as though it too is a dainty little parasol waiting to be unfurled.
The carriage driver is rustic, too — look at him smoking as he waits in the carriage — man, that actor was hot. Sexuality is everywhere — it’s Florence in summer, Kiri Te Kanawa is belting out that aria. Phwoar. Maggie Smith is there too, like a Tupperware container sweating in the heat. The thought of anything romantic happening to Maggie Smith is out of the question. Sex is for the young; the rest of us have to keep a tight lid on it.
Helena finds Julian Sands alone in a huge meadow of long grass. He is fanning himself with his hat. It’s hot. So hot. Julian turns, sees her, stalks through the grass, grabs her round the waist and plants a kiss on her lips. Kiri moves up an octave. The passion! Helena is just the right height — she’s not somehow inconveniently taller than Julian, she doesn’t weigh ten kilos more than him, she just swoons into his kiss in the field, everything moving in the right direction, including the grass. Helena light and right in his hands, still clutching her dainty little parasol.
“Lucy!” Maggie Smith as Miss Bartlett the chaperone bursts on to the scene. The kiss ends abruptly but is as exciting as a small gust of wind. Everyone is overturned by it. In A Room with a View this kiss means everything. Love itself. Bliss! Whereas in real life, kisses often mean nothing and sex can mean sweet fuck all, but maybe that’s why novels and films are so comforting.
Everything means something in a novel or a film.
Mum and I pinned Monet’s Poppy Field above our boarded-up fireplace. In summer, the huge poster billowed out from the wall as gusts of wind or even just small breezes got in through the open windows and passed beneath it. Monet’s painting is also set in a grassy field and figures in bonnets and parasols move through it. First impressions count!
Monet showed Poppy Field, now one of the world’s most famous paintings, to the public at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.
I wanted to be a painter, too, but my first paintings didn’t produce any lasting impressions. I couldn’t capture a tree, a lake, or even a work boot with one ounce of Monet’s aplomb. My paintings bombed. One day I got so frustrated with my terrible paintings from life that I threw a shoe across our room with a view and broke my mother’s favourite ornament: a ceramic church from Trade Aid.
“My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature,” Monet said. His wish came true. In the granny flat the poster of Poppy Field was placed behind the TV. Out the window, poplar trees and Lake Rotorua. It was a dappled, beautiful scene from nature until my shoe flew through it.
Natalie loved Rupert Graves, the young actor who played Freddy Honeychurch, Lucy’s brother. Rupert had brunette hair and a foppish charm.
I loved Julian, because it helped if we didn’t love the same one.
The other scene that filled us with delight was set in the English countryside by a pond. Bonus: both Rupert and Julian get their kit off. The young men decide to go bathing, accompanied by the Reverend Mr Beebe, who is played by the middle-aged character actor Simon Callow. The three men strip off and jump into the pond, and much whooping, splashing and horsing around ensues. This scene is infectious — this is life at its ruddy best — joshing around with the good-natured reverend. Also: dick shots. Julian and Rupert get out and run around the pond starkers. Their dicks are not erect and can only be glimpsed in passing, but all the same it’s very rare to see a penis on screen. Julian gets out of the pond and dons the white clerical collar of the good reverend then plunges back in. I’m sure the heckling of Mr Beebe in this scene is crucial to Forster’s novel and is probably meant to say something about the stuffiness of the church versus a normal healthy sex drive. Just like a normal healthy sex drive, this scene is irrepressible.
We fucking loved it.
“Oh, Rupert!” Natalie shouted.
“Oh, Julian,” I replied.
The portly Simon Callow ran past with his hands cupped over his dick and we laughed. On screen, Helena and her mother and her fiancé, played by the stiff-as-a-board Daniel Day Lewis, stumble across the pond. Julian runs on to their path, lets out an epic whoop, and dangles his bait and tackle. Helena unfurls her white parasol, finally. Then Julian scarpers into the bushes. Obviously Helena can’t be expected to marry Daniel Day Lewis now.
“Rupert is such a spunk,” Natalie said.
‘“So is Julian,” I said.
Mum looked at us both swooning in the lounge and laughed. She sat at the kitchen table in her white smock, her red cardigan draped over the chair. She sipped her cup of tea, on a break from the night shift. Her legs crossed in a pair of flesh-coloured stockings and those white sneakers with the tied-up laces, coming undone. Her face — I can’t capture it now because I’m no Monet — just a dab, a faint impression, young and lovely. She watched Natalie and I pretend to be pregnant, we mimed stroking our swollen bellies, and then went into labour, our legs hoisted over the big brown armchairs. “Push, push!” We mock-strained until our cheeks were pink as Hubba Bubba. “Oh, Julian!” “Oh, Rupert!” Out the window a splendid view of poplar trees and Lake Rotorua all the way out to Mokoia Island. When I think of that view now my heart swells to a dreamy crescendo . . . and then a cockroach crawls out.
Things I Learned At Art School by Megan Dunn (Penguin NZ, $35) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.