Category Archives: Book vs. film

One-Percenter humor

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As if things weren’t already weird enough, filmmaker David Cronenberg and actor Robert Pattinson (heard of him?) rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange this morning to hype the imminent release of Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel. After a summer of brain-dead corporate movies I’m seriously looking forward to seeing a movie about a soul-dead bankster (played by Pattinson) carving a path of — what do they call it? — creative destruction across a few blocks of Manhattan, but are the banksters themselves even aware of what the movie is about? If not, it’s pretty funny; if they are, it’s even funnier — albeit in a very dark way that should dovetail quite nicely with Cronenberg’s work. One-Percenter humor? That’s a scary thought. Life imitates David Cronenberg? That’s even scarier.

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Wise Blood

Though I appreciate Criterion DVDs almost as much as I love Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, I’m in no hurry to get the new Criterion edition of Wise Blood, John Huston’s long unavailable 1979 adaptation of O’Connor’s first novel. Forty bucks is a pretty steep price for a single disc package, and while obscurity and Huston’s auteur status have worked to inflate the film’s reputation, the sad fact is that Wise Blood isn’t all that good a movie. 

I’m tempted, though, because Criterion has assembled a better than usual array of extras, chief among them an audiotape recording of Flannery herself reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that still packs a devastating punch. If I succumb, that’ll be the reason, though I’ll probably also get a kick out of the filmed chat with Huston, as reliably entertaining an interview subject as ever sat down before a camera.      

Peripherals and extras are pretty much the only reason to watch Wise Blood.  Huston’s omnivorous taste for fiction led him to adapt a formidable range of novels, and while everyone correctly reveres smashing successes like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra MadreWise Blood was too slippery and singular a creation for him to grasp. The tale of Hazel Motes, the preacher’s son who sets himself up as the head of the Church Without Christ (“Where the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and what’s dead stays that way”), requires O’Connor’s narrative voice, which is as bone-dry and harshly funny as one would expect from a devout Catholic taking in the South’s cavalcade of exotic Protestant sects. Without that voice, the outward grotesquerie overwhelms the interior subtlety, the humor becomes too broad and cruel. When the story takes its abrupt turn toward Gothic horror, Huston seems to have reconceived Wise Blood as a singularly weird episode of Green Acres in which Eddie Arnold accepts Jesus by burning his own eyes out with lime.       

The curious thing about the film is that while the direction and tone are all wrong, the acting is never less than excellent and sometimes superb, particularly in the case of Brad Dourif’s striking turn as Hazel Motes, which came on the heels of his touching performance as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Regrettably, the sheer weirdness of the Hazel Motes character probably helped typecast Dourif into serial killer and freako roles.) There are also memorable appearances by Harry Dean Stanton, Ned Beatty and Bill Hickey. Amy Wright’s performance as Sabbath Lily is fine enough to make you regret that the screen was less accommodating to her talent than the stage.

But if Hazel Motes preaches the Church Without Christ, John Huston makes Wise Blood the film without Flannery. He found his groove again a few years later, with Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead, but Flannery O’Connor tripped him up. That’s okay: she does it to all of us. That’s what makes her worth reading, even now.

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So it goes, again

This stage version of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five sounds pretty good, but I worry when the reviewer says the play “gradually raises the sentiment slightly higher than the book does. So it goes. But then, this is the theater, which is supposed to awaken our emotions. Here it goes well.” I worry because more sentiment is not what the story needs. What is needs is understatement and a reserved exterior that lets us feel the emotions rather than getting batted over the head with them. In short, it needs exactly the kind of treatment it received in the 1972 film version directed by George Roy Hill and scripted by Stephen Geller, which is one of those instances in which a film adaptation significantly improves upon the source material. Vonnegut said he loved the film so much that he cackled to himself all through the screening.

Hill was able to use the commercial clout gained from his previous film, the blockbuster Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to make and enforce some pretty bold creative decisions: no big-name actors, a deliberately colorless and passive lead performance, and an all-Bach soundtrack (courtesy of Glenn Gould) that conveyed Vonnegut’s theme of philosophical resignation just about perfectly. The film was not a hit, to put it mildly, and Hill immediately made another crowd-pleaser, The Sting, to restore his commercial cred. He was an old school director who followed Burt Lancaster’s career formula: “One film for the bank, then one film for me, then one for the bank.” Hill continued to indulge his taste for difficult literary adaptations with The World According to Garp and The Little Drummer Girl, but neither film posed the sort of challenges he set himself in Slaughterhouse-Five.

The film’s greatest strength is the way Vonnegut’s central conceit — that its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time” and caroms helplessly around the events of his life — is put across with masterful editing by Dede Allen. The clip above offers one example: the older Billy, cradling his dog, walking up the stairs of his house, intercut with the younger Billy, a prisoner of war during World War II, climbing the stairs of a bomb shelter the morning after the firebombing of Dresden. At the top of each climb is a door that will open onto loss: in one case, a bed left empty by the death of a wife; in the other, a lunar landscape that was once a beautiful city. There is equally brilliant cross-cutting between Billy’s election to head a local Chamber of Commerce and the wartime election of his friend Edgar Derby to be the leader of his fellow POWs behind German lines. One man steps forward to a thundering ovation; the other steps up to a single man’s sarcastic hand-clapping. The book’s argument that all events exist simultaneously, impossible to change, is put across by the very structure of the film. As a bonus, most of Vonnegut’s twee conceits and all of his coyly ironic prose are drained away.

The film version of Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t just an example of how to do right by an author’s intentions, it’s a lesson in how to improve upon them.

Dust gets in your eyes

Reading this article about the twists and turns in the journey of The Golden Compass from page to screen, and the obvious enjoyment Philip Pullman is taking in the trouble the whole thing has stirred up, I can’t help thinking of an anecdote about James M. Cain. An interviewer asked him if he was troubled by the way Hollywood had ruined his books, Cain — the author of such much-filmed novels as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and Serenade — nodded toward his shelf and said, “They’re not ruined. They’re all right there.”

Pullman, who is far from being a dummy, knows perfectly well that New Line Cinema bought the film rights to The Golden Compass because it wanted to make a big-budget fantasy film about a spunky girl and her talking polar bear. The fact that she plays a role in a densely textured epic that demands a great deal of alertness from the reader while building into a literal assault on religious doctrine is simply an impediment to the higher goal of selling toy alethiometers and cuddly Iorek Byrnison dolls.

But Pullman, too, has his own agenda, so he’s willing to be guarded in talking about the film version of The Golden Compass:

In the past, Pullman has defended the “good faith of the film-makers” and denied any “betrayal.” On the surface, his relationship with the studio has remained “cordial,” as he put it. The director, Chris Weitz, has made several pilgrimages to Oxford, and the two men exchange e-mails. Pullman got to review a video of the final 50 candidates for the part of Lyra, and he has made script suggestions. Still, the studio publicist seemed nervous when she heard I was going to visit him. All things being equal, Pullman told me, New Line would prefer he were, well, the late author of The Golden Compass. Dead? “Yes! Absolutely!” If something happened to him, there “would be expressions of the most heartfelt regrets, yet privately they would be saying, ‘Thank God.’”When we met, Pullman had just been to a screening of the film, and he praised many specific scenes. He was thrilled with Dakota Blue Richards, the previously unknown English schoolgirl who plays Lyra. And with Nicole Kidman, whom he described as having the “exact quality of warm and cold, seductive and terrifying” to portray the tender and evil Marisa Coulter. In discussing the film, he chose his words carefully, acknowledging that his role now is to be “sensible” so that the next two films get made. Nonetheless, he was honest about what was missing: “They do know where to put the theology,” he said, “and that’s off the film.”

Long silence. Then, “I think if everything that is made explicit in the book or everything that is implied clearly in the book or everything that can be understood by a close reading of the book were present in the film, they’d have the biggest hit they’ve ever had in their lives. If they allowed the religious meaning of the book to be fully explicit, it would be a huge hit. Suddenly, they’d have letters of appreciation from people who felt this but never dared say it. They would be the heroes of liberal thought, of freedom of thought . . . And it would be the greatest pity if that didn’t happen.

“I didn’t put that very well. What I mean is that I want this film to succeed in every possible way. And what I don’t want to do, you see, is talk the other two films out of existence. So I’ll stop there.”

I took Dances With Mermaids to see The Golden Compass yesterday, and I have to say it isn’t a film that improves in the memory. I watched it in an indulgent mood: much as I admire Pullman’s novel, I can recognize that there’s so much detail in play that at the very least an extended mini-series would be required to get everything in. For the most part, I let it wash over me as spectacle, taking note of the writer-director’s very heavy stylistic debt to Peter Jackson. But the ending was a dealbreaker.

Since New Line has made its sponsorship of The Lord of the Rings one of the big selling points for this film, let me take it a few steps further and compare where we are left by The Golden Compass to our situation at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Like Peter Jackson, Chris Weitz did not come to this project with a resume that inspired confidence: American Pie and the critical fave About a Boy are about par with Jackson’s splatter movies and the art-house hit Heavenly Creatures. But by the end of Fellowship, we had seen Jackson consistently address challenges head-on while bringing greater emotional depth to the story. Weitz is evasive where Jackson was direct; if Fellowship had ended with the glimpse of the Argonath, leaving the next film to deal with the Uruk-hai and Boromir’s betrayal and redemption, the letdown would have been about the same as the one left us by The Golden Compass.

Pullman’s ending is not just wonderfully cinematic in its own right, it also upends everything we’ve come to believe about two major characters, raises the stakes for the rest of the story and delivers a wrenching emotional twist to Lyra’s heroism. It also completes the first stage of Lyra’s emotional development, and our appreciation of the immense difficultird she faces. Ending the film with Lyra and company snuggled in the back of a dirigible, heading off to rescue Lord Asriel as the aurora plays over the northern wastes, is simply a cheat. Pullman’s ending puled the rug out from under the reader; Weitz’s ending tucks the viewer in for a night’s sleep. Will the next film open with the terrible deed that closed the novel? Or will Weitz simply skip past it and get to the cool stuff with the Spectres? And will anybody care either way?

Reading Pullman’s interviews, I can’t help but think he’s taking the James M. Cain attitude: the books are always going to be there on the shelf, laden with awards and still pulling in money. If Chris Weitz and New Line keep pussyfooting around and fall on their faces, no big deal. Philip Pullman has nothing more to prove with this particular story. Weitz has even more to prove now than he did when he began the film, and frankly, at this point I couldn’t care less about whether he will rise to the challenge.

A novel darkly, a movie dimly

The 2006 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly is the kind of failure that can only be produced by an exceptionally talented and intelligent artist — one who loves his material so deeply that he can’t step back and realize that his approach is fundamentally misguided, and hollows out the core of what drew him to the material in the first place.

It’s startling to have come to that conclusion. Richard Linklater is one of America’s most intriguing directors, and in the remarkable Waking Life he demonstrated his savvy appreciation for Dick’s work with a long monologue about Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. A Scanner Darkly was the film I most wanted to see last year. Let the movie geeks go on wasting their time with Blade Runner, I thought, Linklater was going to show everyone how to do things right. And when the film failed to register with me, I stepped back and returned to it a few times before I realized what had happened.

The 1977 novel is the most personal and least science-fictional work published during Dick’s lifetime. The story was rooted in personal trauma: deeply shaken by a ruined marriage at the start of the 1970s, Dick allowed himself to become an avuncular guru to a shifting cast of teenaged speed freaks and druggies who wandered into his house in San Rafael, Calif., ate his food, fended off his advances, listened to his philosophical rants and soaked up the music from his vast collection of records. He also became dependent on the amphetamines he had used intermittently during the Sixties in order to maintain the brutal writing pace needed to sustain himself and his family as an SF writer. One by one, the lost boys and girls learned that the highway of excess doesn’t lead to the palace of wisdom, it leads to vascular damage, impaired brain function and, if not death, then one of the varieties of semi-death that can be even worse. Dick later likened it to watching children playing in the street and getting run down, one by one, while the others continued playing.

The novel Dick drew from the experience is set in a near-future Orange County where the drug war has created something close to a total surveillance society, in which undercover narcotics cops wear “scramble suits” — full-body coverings that conceal their identities by projecting a continuous stream of blurred facial and bodily images. One narc, Agent Fred, who goes by the street name Bob Arctor, shares a house with two other druggies and nurses a yearning for Donna, a low-level drug dealer. All are addicted to something called Substance D, the pleasures of which are never made clear, though one would think the drawbacks — sundered connections between both halves of the brain, fragmentation of one’s personality, eventual psychosis — would be fearsome enough to scare away any customers. When Agent Fred is ordered to conduct round-the-clock surveillance on Arctor — i.e., himself — drug damage combines with this already surreal life, and Arctor tips over into a personal abyss.

Dick’s sense of love and loss was deep-seated and sometimes wrenching to encounter. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was my first experience with his work: I was on the threshold of my teen years and the cover come-on (“Synthetic humans programmed to love and then destroy!”) promised all sorts of smuttiness. What I got instead was a meditative action story essentially devoid of villains, and a sense of tragedy that rattled me for days after I finished the book.

That same feeling imbues every page of A Scanner Darkly, and the concluding chapter showing Arctor, his mind and personality damaged beyond repair, performing menial labor under the supervision of a Synanon-like rehab group called New-Path, is still one of the saddest things I’ve read. The coda, in which Dick lists the names and fates of his San Rafael friends, is some of the most nakedly emotional writing he ever set to print.

The most important thing to remember about A Scanner Darkly is that it is a historical novel. When he finished the book, Dick — who had struggled vainly to escape the “sci-fi guy” label pinned to his back by mainstream critics — knew he had written what amounted to an Orange County version of The Panic in Needle Park, and that it would be unsalable without science fiction elements, which he then proceeded to add. Not all of them sit comfortably within the story, though the scramble suit idea succeeds brilliantly as a metaphor for Arctor’s dilemma, and the theme of a total surveillance society has grown steadily more relevant with time.

But Dick could hardly have forseen the course of the Reagan-era drug war, or the rise of highly organized ethnic gangs centered on drug distribution, or the ways in which drug use would differentiate among social and racial castes. For all these reasons, A Scanner Darkly, in its slang and its picture of drug use, remains firmly rooted in the early 1970s. Its action, such as it is, mostly consists of stoners engaging in elaborate raps and attempting, without much success, to get a grip on the world and the life that is tightening its coils around them. And it turns out that while Arctor’s crisis is the result of a horrible betrayal, the motive is heroic: the narcs suspect that New-Path itself is manufacturing Substance D, but cannot penetrate its wall of secrecy without a plausibly damaged agent who will appear harmless to the New-Path hierarchy, all the while acting as an unwitting spy. Thus, Bob Arctor is destroyed to achieve a greater good — or so his victimizers believe.

A Scanner Darkly is full of unblinking cruelty: this is a world where a young girl can find herself prematurely aged by drug and sexual abuse at the hands of her own brother, or a dealer can turn an unknowing tourist into a cross-border drug courier, with jail the penalty for an unsuccessful trip and murder the reward for success. At the same time, Dick endows even his most damaged characters with some kind of dignity: even a man so drug-addled that he imagines himself covered with invisible bugs turns out to be the only one with the presence of mind to save someone’s life. There is also a great deal of deadpan comedy, much of it involving Arctor’s housemates: Luckman, an essentially harmless party-hearty type, and Jim Barris, the kind of would-be evil genius who concocts endless mind-fuck schemes but trips himself up on the small details, such as rigging an elaborate surveillance system to record potential intruders but then forgetting to plug it in as he leaves the house.

The immediate problem with Richard Linklater’s film is that its most striking and attention-getting idea — using the same computerized rotoscoping technique that made Waking Life so trippy to watch — is the one that should have been scrapped immediately. The film’s candy-colored surfaces remove any sense of the squalor and neglect that are part of Arctor’s undercover existence. When we get a flashback to Arctor’s days as a straight-arrow family man, the house and his surroundings hardly seem changed. Like the current Beowulf, which uses groundbreaking motion-capture technology to the same self-defeating end, A Scanner Darkly would have been far more effective as a live-action film. The digital rotoscoping only pays dividends in visualizing the scramble suits, and these should have been handled as separate special effects.

The rotoscoping also walls us off from the actors. As Luckman and Barris, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. deliver performances strong enough to break through the candy curtain, but the film would have been immeasurably improved by removing the barrier of gimmickry. And what is merely an impediment for Harrelson and Downey proves disastrous for Keanu Reeves, who as Arctor is supposed to be the damaged soul of the story. Reeves, already an actor with limited range, becomes a virtual mannequin. Instead of showing us the stages of Arctor’s descent into madness, Reeves gives us a uniformly puzzled expression, as though he spent the entire film trying to understand the script.

To give Reeves some credit, Linklater’s adaptation has some very puzzling aspects. Dick’s adulatory view of the drug agents, rooted in his horror at the damage wrought by the decay of Sixties culture, clashes with the Linklater’s more skeptical stance, which grows out of three decades of just-say-no propaganda and drug-war rhetoric that have played havoc with civil liberties while affecting the illicit drug trade hardly at all. Linklater has inserted scenes of faceless police cracking down on dissidents and even implies that the government itself is in on the New-Path conspiracy, but this makes the narcs seem merely clueless, and Arctor’s martyrdom utterly pointless.

Linklater’s writing also buffs away some of the rougher edges of Dick’s harsh story. The anecdotes about the tortured girl and the murderous drug dealer are gone, along with many of the other seamy realities of the drug culture, leaving us to wonder why the feds are so determined to crack down on what appear to be essentially harmless stoners. Linklater loses his nerve most damagingly with the book’s finest, cruelest moment, when Donna (who proves to be an undercover narc herself) describes her dream of a quiet life on a beautiful farm; Arctor, trying to cling to his last shreds of humanity, asks if he can be a part of it, and Donna replies, with great tenderness and compassion, “No.” Linklater, astonishingly, has Donna taking Arctor’s hand and saying, “I hope so.” Winona Ryder’s flat delivery drains the last bit of pathos from a scene that should have been heartbreaking.

With a copout this huge to Linklater’s discredit, it’s hardly surprising when the film waters down the details of Arctor’s snakepit treatment at New-Path, where a relentless barrage of abuse and criticism completes the destruction begun by Substance D. The details of this “attack therapy” technique, which Dick observed during a brief stint with a group called X-Kalay, are another artifact of the early 1970s, when Synanon (the standard bearer for the approach) was mutating from a misguided drug-rehab program into a menacing proto-fascist cult. Synanon was already in deep trouble with the law when A Scanner Darkly was published, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses of life under an alternative-therapy regime gave the book great immediacy. It also added punch to the ending, in which the prospect of Arctor’s ironic victory over the cult that reduced him to a burnt-out husk provides a slender ray of light in an otherwise pitch-black scenario.

Visions of the future always turn into trips back in time: just as A Clockwork Orange returns us to the Cold War and early 1960s controveries over social control and behavior modification, so does A Scanner Darkly take us back to the muzzy conclusion of the hippie era, and the growing sense that along with many social benefits, something dangerous had been set loose in society and needed to be brought under control. Philip K. Dick, who saw the damage clearly, was writing at the beginning of that societal change, and it shows in his novel. Richard Linklater, also clear-eyed, created his film version of the novel with the benefit of three decades of hindsight and the awareness that attempts to crack down on the problem have, if anything, only made it worse, and brought other problems in their wake. The two viewpoints share space in the film version of A Scanner Darkly, and they cancel each other out.

How interesting to think that a talented filmmaker, drawn to the masterwork of a writer whose stories were often based on shifts in perception, should have his movie undone by a shift in perception. And how surprising to realize that a writer who wrote consistently about the future is still, despite the best efforts of Hollywood, best experienced on one of the oldest forms of technology we have — the printed page.

Beowulf: A non-expert speaks, or, OIM ‘ERE TER KILL YER MOON-STAH FORE YEH!

The new film version of Beowulf uses top-of-the-line computer imaging techniques to turn accomplished actors and actresses into unconvincing plastic dolls, employs the talents of two exceptional writers to come up with a story that has all the emotional impact of a cheeseball sword’n’sandal cheapie like Hercules vs. The Sea Monster, and gives Robert Zemeckis another chance to show us all what happens when a good filmmaker allows technology to become the tail wagging his muse.

No, I didn’t much like Beowulf. The film showcases a wide array of self-defeating storytelling choices, and its razzle-dazzle technology produces effects that can verge on photo-realism one minute and Grand Theft Auto the next. The opening sequence in Heorot, with its vinyl-skinned mannequins talking dirty and belching up mists of mead, plays like the unrated director’s cut of Shrek the Third that you never wanted to see. The eye eventually adjusts to the skin tones on Beowulf (with Ray Winstone, the pudgy gangster from Sexy Beast, emoting under the pixels) and the character becomes convincing, but Wealthow and Unferth could have stepped out of the latest straight-to-DVD Barbie movie, and I’ve seen merry- go-rounds with more convincing horses. Zemeckis strives so hard for realism that in one scene he even mimes the effect of a camera shifting focus from a foreground character to one in the background, but then he stages action scenes that play as weightless vido games. And at no point do we get a feel for the texture of life in this harsh world. The squalor and smelly closeness of medieval life are gone from this digitally-scrubbed universe. Like A Scanner Darkly, another promising film defeated by its own technology, Beowulf would have been drastically improved by live-action treatment.

But would even a substantial upgrade have been enough? An actor’s real face, instead of its digital twin, might have offered enough nuances to keep Beowulf from coming across as a World Wrestling Federation wannabe. The depiction of Grendel is a real coup — the hurt, desperately sad eyes peering out from the gnarled face give him just the right amount of pathos within the menace. But Grendel’s mother, whether embodied digitally or in any other form, is so badly conceived that not even the sight of Angelina Jolie dipped in gold paint can keep the mind from rebelling. There is no motiveless malignity in the Syd Field universe of screenwriting, so the dragon that kills Beowulf must somehow have sprung from Beowulf himself. How Freudian! How Jungian! How George Lucasian!

How fatuous! To show Beowulf battling monsters of his own creation (or of Hrothgar’s) is to miss the point of the entire poem. I know we’ve all read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics,” and while he doesn’t necessarily get the last word, he does get top honors for outlining the poem’s issues as starkly as possible. Beowulf is about a hero who seeks glory and, having gained it, acts with honor, because that is how men act. He doesn’t face his own monsters; he defeats those the world keeps throwing at him, until the inevitable moment when the ravages of age lead to his defeat. The “northern theory of courage,” as Tolkien put it, gave the monsters victory but not honor. Zemeckis, interested only in rummaging through his latest bag of tricks, gets neither.

ADDENDUM: Well, at least Doc Nokes got a good party out of the whole thing. There were even groupies!