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 in 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.