Category Archives: Dream projects

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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Dream projects: Peter Jackson

This notion of linking up filmmakers with books that would benefit from being adapted into film hasn’t produced the kind of response I’d hoped for, but I post on anyway. The first four are here, and now on to the fifth.

PETER JACKSON: Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg.

Dying Inside, published in 1972, was the culmination of Robert Silverberg’s drive to lift himself from a fast-working genre hack to a thoughtful writer who consistently stretched the boundaries of literary science fiction. His Dying Insidework from the late Sixties, beginning with Thorns, already stood head and shoulders above that of his colleagues, but Dying Inside was the perfect merger of a well-established science fiction theme — telepathy — with the kind of prose treatment found in top-notch literary fiction. SF abounds in stories of persecuted people with hidden powers who ascend to something like godhood; Silverberg stood the idea on its head by making his protagonist, David Selig, a man born with extraordinary powers, who must now cope with their loss as he ages. What makes the book engrossing rather than depressing is Silverberg’s skill at showing how the ability to read minds has warped Selig’s life: it has ruined two love affairs, spoiled his relationship with his younger sister, given the people around him a creepy sense of being under surveillance, and burdened Selig with a sense of himself as a grubby eavesdropper into the lives of others. The loss of this double-edged gift is paradoxically uplifting; unable to use his super power in any positive way, Selig now has the chance to become fully human through its loss.

Silverberg tells the story in fragmentary fashion, shifting from the first-person to omniscient third-person in response to the level of pain and embarrassment Selig feels as he looks back on his life. Not all of the memories are unpleasant: there’s a bravura sequence in which the teenaged Selig wanders a farm, idly slipping into the minds of the creatures around him, jumping from a trout swimming past to a pair of lovers in the throes of passion. At least one memory is downright thrilling:

One summer when I was eight or nine — it was before they adopted Judith, anyway — I went with my parents to a resort in the Catskills for a few weeks. There was a day camp for the kiddies, in which we received instruction in swimming, tennis, softball, arts & crafts, and other activities, thus leaving the older folks free for gin rummy and creative drinking. One afternoon the daycamp staged some boxing matches. I had never worn boxing gloves, and in the free-for-alls of boyhood I had found myself to be an incompetent fighter, so I was unenthusiastic. I watched the first five matches in much dismay. All that hitting! All those bloody noses!

Then it was my turn. My opponent was a boy named Jimmy, a few months younger than but taller and heavier and much more athletic. I think the counselors matched us deliberately, hoping Jimmy would kill me; I was not their favorite child. I started to shake even before they put the gloves on me. “Round One!” called a counselor, and we approached each other. I distinctly heard Jimmy thinking about hitting me on the chin, and as his glove came toward my face I ducked and hit him in the belly. That made him furious. He proposed now to clobber me on the back of my head, but I saw that coming too and stepped aside and hit him on the neck close to his adam’s-apple. He gagged and turned away, half in tears. After a moment he returned to the attack, but I continued to anticipate his moves and he never touched me. For the first time in my life I felt touch, competent, aggressive. As I battered him I looked past the improvised ring and saw my father flushed with pride, and Jimmy’s father next to him looking angry and perplexed. End of round one. I was sweaty, bouncy, grinning.

Round two: Jimmy came forth determined to knock me to pieces. Swinging wildly, frantically, still going for my head. I kept my head where he couldn’t reach it and danced around to his side and hit him in the belly again, very hard, and when he folded I hit him on the nose and he fell down, crying. The counselor in charge very quickly counted to ten and raised my hand. “Hey, Joe Louis!” my father yelled. “Hey, Willie Pep!” The counselor suggested I go over to Jimmy and help him up and shake his hand. As he got to his feet I very clearly detected him deciding to butt me in the teeth with his head, and I pretended to be paying no attention, except when he charged I stepped coolly to one side and banged my fists down on his lowered back. That shattered him. “David cheats!” he moaned. “David cheats!”

How they all hated me for my cleverness! What they interpreted as my cleverness, that is. My sly knack of always guessing what was going to happen. Well, that wouldn’t be a problem now. They’d all love me. Loving me, they’d beat me to a pulp.

Like Silverberg, Peter Jackson made his own craftsman’s journey upward, Peter JAcksonfrom splatter movies to the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings films and the upcoming prestige release The Lovely Bones, which is also being touted as Oscar bait. The artistic transition from Bad Taste to The Lord of the Rings is as dazzling as Silverberg’s leap from Invaders From Earth to Son of Man. Jackson also has an unabashedly broad appetite for fantasy and science fiction, as well as en eye for talent: in Heavenly Creatures, for example, he gave Kate Winslet her first major showcase.

The glimpses I’ve seen of footage from The Lovely Bones make me think Jackson would be the one to find an ingenious and original way of visualizing Selig’s telepathic experiences. Just as importantly — perhaps more so — Jackson knows how to imbue fantasy material with well-grounded, earthly emotions. My two favorite sequences from The Two Towers — Elrond’s warning of what awaits Arwen if she stays behind, and Theoden’s recitation of “Where is the horse, where is the rider?” — have little to do with special effects and everything to do with the power of the human voice, and the savvy of a director who knows when it’s time to hang back and simply let the actors carry their scenes. To see that kind of artistry at work on adapting what is arguably the finest SF novel of the Seventies would be a rare treat.

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Dream projects: Quentin Tarantino

David Cronenberg (or David Lynch) and Junichiro Tanizaki. Spike Lee and Charles Mingus. Carroll Ballard and John Steinbeck. After three pairings like that, the next one should be obvious.

QUENTIN TARANTINO: Afterburn, by Colin Harrison.

Now that Quentin Tarantino’s done his men-on-a-wartime-mission-movie (Inglourious Basterds, out later this month) and his kung-fu-revenge-movie (Kill Bill) and his grindhouse-tribute-movie (Death Proof), maybe he’d like Afterburnto take a crack at another heist-gone-wrong movie (or maybe a Mafia movie), this one with an A-list critical pedigree and a much wider focus: Colin Harrison’s 2000 thriller, Afterburn.

I certainly wouldn’t want anybody else casting the role of Christina Welles, an Ivy League dropout and math whiz doing time for her part in a Mafia-run truck theft ring. Paroled suspiciously early, Christina is trying to keep clear of mob boss Tony Verducci (who suspects her of cheating him out of several million dollars) and ex-lover Ricky Bocca (who feels guilty for her arrest and incarceration) when she runs into Charlie Ravich, a multimillionaire and former Vietnam POW who wants to father a child in order to keep the family line going.

Her parole had been so far off that she hadn’t allowed herself to think about what it would be like to live in Manhattan again. But now, after only a few hours, all kinds of things crowded her mind. She’d need money, that was certain. She had just over three hundred dollars in her prison account, and if she could somehow live on that for a couple of weeks, she’d be okay. She’d get a job and rent a room downtown, near First or Second Avenue. Start all over. No flashy moves. Be careful what she said to people. You could live on almost nothing if you had to. You spent every dollar carefully, that’s all. She wanted to walk along the streets, look in the store windows. She’d buy a small radio and lie on her bed and listen to WCBS-FM, the oldies station. She’d read magazines in the bookstore. She missed all the magazines, even the trashy ones. She’d go to the movies, sink into one of those seats with a Coke and some popcorn. She wanted to see a Jack Nicholson movie. Anything he was in. Yes. She wold take a bath, her first in four years. Watch the water go down the drain and fill it up again, hot as she could stand it. She’d watch the beautiful little babies in the park and think, Where has the time gone? She would try to find the next version of herself.

Harrison, like Tarantino, is incapable of self-editing. Long stretches of Afterburn read like what we old newspaper hands used to call a notebook-dump: instead of using his impressive research to tell the story, choosing the most pertinent details, Harrison packs the narrative with every scrap of information he managed to find. The novel tops four hundred pages but could have worked better and faster at three hundred.

But despite the longueurs, Afterburn works like gangbusters, and Harrison Quentin Tarantinoblends guilt, regret, sex, and high-finance with some of the most outrageous violence I’ve ever read, the last delivered by Verducci’s “go-to guy,” Morris, a former paramedic who puts his knowledge of the human body to some appalling uses. Tarantino may even want to play him, if only for the climax, in which a man must conduct an international business transaction under local anesthetic while Morris surgically dismantles the steel cage holding his spine together.

If Tarantino isn’t answering his phone, have my people call Steven Soderbergh’s people. This movie needs to get made, like, yesterday.

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Dream projects: Carroll Ballard

Pick a book that’s crying out to be adapted for film, then name the director best suited for the job. First up was David Cronenberg and Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. Next came Spike Lee and Charles Mingus’ semi-memoir, Beneath the Underdog. And now . . .

CARROLL BALLARD: Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.

Carroll Ballard is not a relentlessly productive filmmaker: in the thirty years since his first feature, The Black Stallion, was released in 1979, Ballard has directed only five other films. Ballard’s meticulous working methods and his preference for understatement are, to put it mildly, unfashionable in today’s film industry; his most recent movie, Duma, almost went unreleased, and was finally distributed to a handful of theaters only after Roger Ebert went to bat for it.

Except for The Nutcracker (an honorable attempt to find a non-cliched way of filming the biggest chestnut of the Christmas season), Ballard’s films deal Cannery Rowin some fashion with mankind’s relationship with nature, whether the subject is the companionship between a shipwrecked boy and an Arabian racehorse (The Black Stallion), a motherless child who nurtures a brood of goslings and then must teach them to migrate (Fly Away Home), yacht-racers working to master the vagaries of sky and sea  (Wind), or a research scientist trying to understand the ways of wolves on the Alaskan tundra (Never Cry Wolf, based on Farley Mowatt’s proudly unreliable book). They are also sumptuously good-looking movies, often breathtakingly so — I date my lifelong fascination with Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography to the almost abstract beauty of the Mediterranean landscapes he captured in The Black Stallion. Along with his fine taste in cinematographers, Ballard brings an eye for the telling detail  and the crucial moment, honed during his early years as a documentary filmmaker.

A similar blend of artistry and documentary precision is at work in John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row, set among the derelicts, prostitutes, lowlifes, eccentrics, and workers of the Monterey waterfront. The sort-of hero, Doc (loosely based on Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts), is a Renaissance man and Lothario who collects and preserves sea creatures from nearby tide pools for sale to laboratories. Cannery Row itself functions as a sort of tide pool in which exotic personalities survive, mingle, and sometimes prey upon one another, and Steinbeck observes from a rather chilly, above-it-all perspective.

In the morning when the sardine fleet has made a catch, the purse-seiners waddle into the bay blowing their whistles. The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails into the bay. The figure is advisedly chosen, for if the canneries dipped their mouths into the bay, the canned sardines which emerge from the other end would be metaphorically, at least, even more horrifying. Then cannery whistles scream and all over town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work. Then shining cars bring the upper classes down: superintendents, accountants, owners who disappear into offices. Then from the town pour Wops and Chinamen and Polaks, men and women in trousers and rubber coats and oilcloth aprons. They come running to clean and cut and pack and cook and can the fish. The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty. The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned and then the whistles scream again and the dripping, smelly, tired Wops and Chinamen and Polaks, men and women, straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town and Cannery Row becomes itself again — quiet and magical. Its normal life returns. The bums who retired in disgust under the black cypress trees come out to sit on the rusty pipes in the vacant lot. The girls from Dora’s emerge for a bit of sun if there is any. Doc strolls from the Western Biological Laboratory and crosses the street to Lee Chong’s grocery for two quarts of beer. Henri the painter noses like an Airedale through the junk in the grass-grown lot for some part or piece of wood or metal he needs for the boat he is building. Then the darkness edges in and the street light comes on in front of Dora’s — the lamp which makes perpetual moonlight in Cannery Row. Callers arrive at Western Biological to see Doc, and he crosses the street to Lee Chong’s for five quarts of beer.

Though there is already one film version of Cannery Row in existence — a weak 1982 adaptation directed by David S. Ward — the film that offers the best look at the Row in operation is Fritz Lang’s 1938 melodrama, Clash by Night, which opens with a documentary-like sequence showing the Monterey canneries coming to life as the fishing fleet comes in. It wouldn’t surprise me if the sequence influenced the Steinbeck passage quoted above.

The biggest problem with Ward’s 1982 film is that only about a quarter of it derives from Cannery Row. The rest comes from Sweet Thursday, the 1954 sequel which, following the badly flawed East of Eden, marked the beginning of Steinbeck’s decline. The Broadway-ready storyline — it was adapted as Pipe Dream, the least successful musical in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon — has Dora, owner of the local brothel, scheming with the colorful derelicts of Cannery Row to get the solitary Doc hitched up with a lovely young runaway. Aside from the shrewd casting of Nick Nolte and Debra Winger in the lead roles, Cannery Row is a sodden mess that replaces Steinbeck’s curiously poetic vision with stale sentimentality. (Ward is after all, the screenwriter behind the cuddly con men of The Sting.) Ballard couldn’t do worse if he tried; but he could certainly do much better.

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Dream projects: Spike Lee

The idea here is to pick a work of literature just waiting to be filmed, and pick the filmmaker who should do it. The first pick was David Cronenberg for a Junichiro Tanizaki novella. Today’s pick is . . .

SPIKE LEE: Beneath the Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus, by Charles Mingus.

“Stormy” is a word frequently used to describe jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979); it also applies to his 1971 stream-of-consciousness memoir, which is literary equivalent to one of his more ambitious compositions. Just as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” alternates swinging passages of hard bop with chaotic free jazz interludes, Beneath the Underdog staggers through long rants and digressions, sometimes alternating passages of brilliant clarity with tedious accounts of sexual exploits and random digressions. As a factual account of a man’s life, Beneath the Underdog is at best dubious, but as a record of the thoughts and preoccupations of one of America’s greatest composers, it’s fascinating.

I don’t think a direct film adaptation of Beneath the Underdog is possible or even advisable, but the book would be a fine springboard for a biographical Beneath the Underdogfilm about the man. After training up in the Forties with touring groups under Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Kid Ory in the Forties, Mingus emerged as a bandleader in the Fifties, forming a very loose, ever-shifting collection of musicians he called the Jazz Workshop. His career bridged the commercial decline of the big jazz bands and the rise of the boppers, just as his life spanned the overwhelming transformations of the civil rights era.  As Brian Priestley notes in his 1982 critical biography (still the best and most reliable work on the composer), Mingus was part of “the generation which came to maturity during and immediately after World War II, and which was no longer content to adopt either the seeming subservience of a Louis Armstrong or the sophisticated scorn of a Duke Ellington.” His rage over the slights dealt to him as a black man, combined with his readiness to joust with record companies and the music industry at large, often made Mingus a menace to his own career, as when he blew his chance to play in the orchestra of his composing idol, Duke Ellington. The account Mingus gives in Beneath the Underdog is self-serving, but the pain and humiliation of the setback is all there on the page:

This is the hero and this is the band you don’t quit, but this time you’re asked to leave because of an incident with a trombone player and arranger named Juan Tizol. Tizol wants you to play a solo he’s written where bowing is required. You raise the solo an octave, where the bass isn’t too muddy. He doesn’t like that and he comes to the room under the stage where you’re practicing at intermission and comments that you’re like the rest of the niggers in the band, you can’t read. You ask Juan how he’s different from the other niggers and he states that one of the ways that he is different is that HE IS WHITE. So you run his ass upstairs. You leave the rehearsal room and proceed toward the stage with your bass and take your place and at the moment Duke brings down the baton for “A-Train” and the curtain of the Apollo Theatre goes up, a yelling, whooping Tizol rushes out and lunges at you with a bolo knife. The rest you remember mostly from Duke’s own words in his dressing room as he changes after the show.

“Now, Charles,” he says, looking amused, putting Cartier links into the cuffs of his beautiful handmade shirt, “you could have forewarned me — you left me out of the act entirely! At least you could have let me cue in a few chords as you ran through that Nijinsky routine. I congratulate you on your performance, but why didn’t you and Juan inform me about the adagio you planned so that we could score it? I must say I never saw a large man so agile — I never saw anybody make such tremendous leaps! The gambado over the piano carrying your bass was colossal. When you exited after that I thought, ‘That man’s really afraid of Juan’s knife and at the speed he’s going he’s probably home in bed by now.’ But no, back you came through the same door with your bass still intact. For a moment I was hopeful you’d decided to sit down and play bu instead you slashed Juan’s chair in two with a fire axe! Really, Charles, that’s destructive. Everybody knows Juan has a knife but nobody ever took it seriously — he likes to pull it out and show it to people, you understand. So I’m afraid, Charles — I’ve never fired anybody — you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem, I can cope with that, but you seem to have a whole bag of new tricks. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice, Mingus.”

The charming way he says it, it’s like he’s paying you a compliment. Feeling honored, you shake hands and resign.

There are at least three reasons why Spike Lee should tackle a film about Charles Mingus. Lee’s filmic biography of Malcolm X is one of his best works, Spike Leeand I’d like to see him return to the jazz milieu he explored in Mo Better Blues.  Most of all, Lee would be unflinching about the ways racism distorted Mingus’ life and career. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s biography of Charlie Parker, Bird, which offered viewers some comic relief by devoting lots of screen time to Parker’s 1949 tour with Red Rodney — during which Parker presented Rodney, a white man, as “Albino Red” — Lee’s film would be gutsy enough to keep the racial theme as uncomfortable as possible. And there’s no question that the splendor of the composer’s music guarantees a monster of a soundtrack .

Laugh if you will, but I can picture Ice Cube playing Mingus. The rapper is a better actor than he gets credit for — his multilayered performance as Doughboy is the main reason anyone remembers Boyz N The Hood — and his glowering presence is a close match for Mingus at his most forbidding.

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Dream projects: David Cronenberg

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 Tanizakigood 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 CronenbergHistory 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.

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