Since books and movies are my two most frequently blogged-about subjects, I’m going to spend the next several days combining the two in a semi-meme. More of a challenge than a meme. The point is to identify a work of literature that ought to be made into a film and point to the living director best suited for the job. I invite any and all lit-bloggers and film-bloggers to weigh in with their own choices and let me know so I can link to their posts. I’ve got books in mind for, among others, Spike Lee, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, and Carroll Ballard, but I’m going to get things rolling with a nightmarish dream project, an extreme choice for one of our best and most extreme filmmakers.
DAVID CRONENBERG: The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, by Junichiro Tanizaki.
In a review of Dead Ringers, a New Yorker critic described David Cronenberg’s storytelling mode as “debonair cruelty.” That’s a pretty good description of Junichiro Tanizaki’s blackly comic 1935 novella about a sixteenth-century Japanese warlord whose feats of valor on the battlefield are rooted in a bizarre erotic obsession formed when, as a boy, he watched women preparing the severed heads of enemy soldiers taken as trophies in battle. In particular, his fixation centered on a young woman’s enigmatic smile as she prepared a “woman-head” for presentation. In order to experience the rapture of this vision once again, the budding warlord becomes the catalyst for a revenge plot that changes the course of a small, extremely bloody piece of history during the period of Warring States.
Tanizaki’s novella couches this tale in a parody of tediously didactic Confucian history — sort of the Asian version of Parson Weems — that upends the idea of ignoring a hero’s faults and listing only his virtues for moral instruction, and the lecturing tone gets drier and funnier as the exploits get ever more outrageous. Since just about every Tanizaki story except The Makioka Sisters (his best known work outside Japan) hinges on some kind of outre sexual obsession, the author is offering his readers an exceptionally shrewd self-parody as well.
The mingling of beauty, grotesquerie, and cynical humor in The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi would be right up Cronenberg’s alley. He may have replenished his bank account with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, but we’ve already seen how commercial success only whets his appetite for extreme material. This is, after all, the man who followed relatively conventional genre films like The Dead Zone and The Fly with Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, then detoured for a Broadway adaptation (M. Butterfly) before heading right back to the edge with Crash. Watch the bondage scene in Dead Ringers, then imagine how Cronenberg would handle a scene like this:
When Hoshimaru arrived at the attic on the third night, an extraordinary head lay before the girl. It was that of a young samurai of twenty-one or -two, but, strangely, the nose was missing. It was an attractive face. The complexion was wonderfully pale, the freshly shaven places glowed, and the glossy black hair was as splendid as that which draped luxuriously over the girl’s shoulders and down her back. No doubt the warrior had been an extremely handsome man. His eyes and mouth were of classic form and there was a certain delicacy in the firm, well proportioned, masculine features. Had there been a fine, straight nose in the middle, the face would have been the epitome of the young warrior, just as a master dollmaker might conceive it. But, for some reason, the nose was missing, as if it had been sliced off with a sharp blade, bone and all, from the brow to the upper lip. A pug nose might not have been so sorely missed; but one would expect to find a sculpturesque protuberance soaring from the middle of this splendid face. Instead, that vital feature had been cleanly removed, as if scooped off with a spatula, leaving a flat, crimson wound. s a result the face was uglier and more comical than those of ordinary ugly men. The girl carefully ran her comb through the noseless head’s lustrous black hair and retied the topknot; then, as she always did, she gazed at the center of the face, where the nose should have been, and smiled. As usual, the boy was enchanted by her expression, but the surge of emotion he experienced at that moment was far stronger than any he had felt before. Juxtaposed with the mutilated head, the girl’s face glowed with the pride and the joy of the living, the embodiment of flawless beauty. And her smile, precisely because it was so girlish and unaffected, now appeared to be brimming with the most cynical malice, and provided the boy with a wheel on which to spin endless fantasies. He thought he would never tire of gazing at her smiling face. The fantasies it inspired were inexhaustible and, before he was aware of it, had lured his soul away to a land of ambrosial dreams where he himself had become this noseless head and was living with the girl in a world inhabited only by the two of them. This fantasy was very much to his liking. It made him happier than he had ever been before.
I’m imagining Cronenberg’s eye for color and texture at work among the silk robes, polished floors and bloody carnage. I’m also imagining the blend of lushness and austerity Howard Shore could bring to the soundtrack music. Until he broke the bank with The Lord of the Rings, Shore’s best and most challenging work was done for Cronenberg, and he needs another challenge. And I’d like to see the actress who could play Lady Kikyo, the tormented noblewoman whose wish for vengeance allows the hero to realize his deepest wish, and provides a closing tableau that would give the definitive answer to anyone who wondered if Cronenberg could manage to come up with anything wilder than Crash.
ADDENDUM: If Cronenberg doesn’t want the job, second choice would be David Lynch. From Blue Velvet to silk kimonos would be a natural evolution for Lynch.