I started out watching The
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with an expectation of a positive
experience: after all, the production had won nine Emmy awards, and though it
had been many years since I'd read the novel it was based on, my recollection
of the book was positive. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
In the thirty years since this
made-for-television film's release in 1973, I think some things have changed,
including the overall quality of television programming and the expectations viewers
have for television productions. Overall, there's still an inordinate amount of
garbage on television, just as there is in other media as well, but I'd hazard
a guess that the standard for the very best television productions has risen
considerably. At least that's one way to explain the fact that I found The
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to be so underwhelming.
Based on the novel by Ernest J.
Gaines, this fictional biography focuses on Jane, a 110-year-old black woman
who in 1962 is being interviewed by a magazine reporter. Jane's character is
itself entirely fictional (though the film tries to present her as a real
person), and indeed her great age and remarkable memory are a storytelling
device allowing us to see many of the major events of the late 19th and 20th
century through the eyes of a single viewpoint character.
The events themselves are
certainly both varied and interesting, from the Civil War, the abolition of
slavery, and the struggle by newly freed blacks to establish new lives in the
face of prejudice, to the civil rights movement and protests of the 1960s. But
somehow it never really works. In terms of pacing, the story is caught in an
awkward limbo between not having enough time to really tell a story at any
given moment in time (unlike Roots, which established itself firmly at each
point in time) and spending too long on fairly uninteresting parts of the
story, like ordinary travel.
The tone is similarly uneven,
varying between hokey melodrama and rather dull realism. What's worse is the
occasional note of condescension that creeps into the story. The most striking
of these is in an early scene in which the young Jane, then known as Ticey, has
a conversation with a Yankee soldier. He tells her that Ticey is a "slave
name" and that she should pick a new name; he offers some possible names,
of which she chooses "Jane." It's completely patronizing ... and the
scene is played completely straight. We are, I believe, intended to view Jane's
adoption of the new name as a liberating moment.
While Cicely Tyson earned an
Emmy for her performance as Jane, I really didn't find her acting to be
anything more than adequate, although in that sense it's better than some of
the secondary actors, who are all very earnest and not very convincing. What grates
even more is the fact that the music is used in a very heavy-handed way to
underscore the scenes: there's no doubt about what we "should" be
feeling. Unfortunately, this intrusive use of the music actually has a
distancing effect, especially since the music itself is a bit strident and in
general not very appealing.
The Autobiography of Miss
Jane Pittman is presented in its original television aspect ratio of
1.33:1. Unfortunately, it looks terrible. The colors are the worst part of the transfer,
which fluctuates between having a grayish, muddy tint and having a bright
orange tint. The switch from gray to orange sometimes happens in the middle of
a scene, and it's quite startling. The orange-tinted scenes are, obviously, not
natural-looking, but neither are the gray ones, which present the scene's
colors in a flat, muddy, and generally lifeless manner. The print is also very
noisy and abundantly sprinkled with print flaws, along with being rather
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack offers
little by way of clarity. Voices sound muffled and unclear, and a substantial
amount of the dialogue is simply unintelligible. Cicely Tyson's wavering
old-lady voice used in the narrative voiceover might have added character to
the film if it had decent audio support, but as it is, her voiceover sounds
harsh and is often difficult to understand. The music portion of the soundtrack
tends to be a bit overly loud and is also slightly harsh.
There are no special features
for this DVD. The menu, after a non-skippable introduction, is simple and
Personally, I found The
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to be disappointingly dull and poorly
constructed. I'm going to have to recommend that viewers simply skip this DVD.
Unfortunately, even viewers who enjoyed the program when it originally aired on
television will want to pass, due to the poor video and audio transfer.