The 2007 Newfest LGBT film festival opened with a modernized revision film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s late 19th Century novel. This story is frightening. Dorian Gray (played by David Gallagher), young and innocent, attends a party where artists and art enthusiasts are indulging in philosophical talk and cocaine. Inspired by Dorian’s beauty, the artist Basil Hallward gets his camera rolling—which in itself turns into a very erotic activity. This early scene gives the audience a powerful sense of the pleasure an artist gets from being behind a camera, having license to gaze upon another human being as if the gaze is not intrusive, being allowed to “shoot” at someone with the intensity and sensual indulgence that, say, one might use during tender touches of sexual foreplay, and confining the youth and beauty of the gazed-upon being to a recorded mock-up. From this erotic video session, Basil creates a film installment capturing the purity, allure, and beauty of Dorian Gray, a kind of beauty that could get people to do almost anything for him. Basil and Dorian fall under the strange influence of this masterpiece video installment, and it changes their lives for the worst. The beauty and aesthetic pleasure of the video installment juxtaposed with the horror story that unfolds creates an unusual movie-going experience.
To start the descent, the prominent Henry Wotton tells Dorian that his best asset is his beauty and the asset will inevitably fade. When his beauty is gone, Dorian can be sure he will be rejected by the world. Dorian wishes the installment would grow old, not he. He gets what he wishes for, and the consequences of maintaining youth translate into a life of cruelty that descends further into evil. We witness Dorian committing a series of cruel and horrifying acts through a ten-year period. Basil falls victim to Aids; Henry ages; as for Dorian, however, not a wrinkle or a scar sullies his lovely brow. Some wonder how he’s done it while others know his secret. Dorian grows gradually more deranged as the changes within his soul do not reveal themselves on his face. Of course, Dorian blames the video installment, and the film gives a final philosophical wink and nod to the idea that “all art is useless.”
I was interested and surprised to learn that Oscar Wilde drew some of his ideas for his novel version of The Picture of Dorian Gray from Daoism and his exposure to Herbert Giles’s translations of the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi. In his journals, Wilde wrote about how the honest men and healthy families mocked the philosophers, but if they only looked beneath the surface and realized what these philosophers were saying, they’d be terrified by the “Inaction” someone like Zhuang Zi preached. According to Wilde, common man would be terrified by Zhuang Zi’s message that all is meaningless. I was fascinated to read this because Oscar Wilde got it all wrong. Wilde read a poorer translation of Zhuang Zi than those we have today (Burton Watson is more approriate for today) because Wilde’s interpretation is not precisely what the old Daoist was saying. Zhuang Zi’s message is more one of be in the world but not of the world and that message was supposed to liberate not horrify. One could do a most thorough study on how Westerners of the past misread the Chinese, but I’d rather use this opportunity as an example of why translation is so important and why it is such a difficult, slow, grueling, never-ending process; the practice of translation could always use more attention, appreciation, precision, and patience. That’s all I wish to preach, if I preach anything. When I have a child, I’ll discipline the child by lovingly saying something like: “Brush your teeth, and learn to translate…”
Getting back to Duncan Roy’s new film version The Picture of Dorian Gray and the ideas and sources he drew from: The director claims he took much of the content of the film from Wilde’s more pornographic writings as well as the earlier version of the Dorian Gray story as it appeared in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine before it was revised and published by Ward, Lock, and Company in 1891. This earlier Lippincott version contained more blatant homoerotica. So the director’s idea in creating this movie from this particular novel was to put the homosexuality back into the story and bring the characters out of their 19th century Victorian society and into the 21st century New York City art scene.
If you like a film that explores the major themes of aestheticism, obsession with beauty, hedonism, and homosexuality, you’ll appreciate this film. And upon writing this blog entry, I catch myself wondering how old Zhuang Zi might have directed this film. He probably would have included some random scene about how to subsist on a diet of clouds and morning dew.