Month: April 2013
As much as I watched movies growing up, I spent more time reading in my youth than watching film. As a result, I was very much the typical “Read the book before the movie” kind of person and often staunchly the “book was better than the movie” person as well. This included things from Dracula, the Harry Potter book series, the cases of Sherlock Holmes, the works of Agatha Christie, the James Bond books, and even the somewhat frivolous choice of Jane Austen (I had a thing for English writers, I guess). However, as I grew to be a better writer, as I grew to love film more passionately, and as I grew to be a better film watcher I slowly drifted from that state of mind to one of “treat the two as almost separate entities”. I’ve become the kind of person who will pipe up defending a film’s interpretation of a book, even if drastic changes are made and even if I didn’t like the film. A film should be able to stand on its own and be as broadly accessible as possible, right? That may be so, but I noticed very recently that, despite my mild evolution in thought, I still relapse into the same state of mind when watching certain television adaptations of works. From HBO’s Todd Haynes directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce to the British television series that adapted Poirot and Miss Marple to the incredible I, Claudius, I’ve inadvertently made a strange exception. And I don’t quite understand why, but I will try to discuss it further here.
One of my most vivid memories as a child is one that takes me back to second grade. I was lying on the bed in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to the audio book of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, narrated by the great Jim Dale. (Full disclosure: A lot of my “reading” was actually done by audio book. I have no shame.) Sure, the Harry Potter books make not be the literary masterpieces a lot of people my age would purport them to be, but I really do enjoy them and, at that age, I found them to be quite magical. There was so much depth and detail, the characters seemed so fully realized, and I wanted to be a part of that world. I assumed, as do probably most people at that age when reading a book, that the film adaptation would take me to that world exactly as I had imagined. But it didn’t.
Much to my dismay, I was unable to really make much out of the first three movies, which to me, were a fiasco (they still aren’t great, really). But I was so in tune to my own interpretation of the book that it never occurred to me a) the director has his own ideas b) the author has their own intentions and c) the adaptations should be able to stand on their own, in order to make the world more open. Also, there was an issue with running time, so there was that as well. (I still find it kind of strange that director David Yates decided to make the longest book into the shortest film. Clever, but strange.) My own ego was at work here, and fully manifested itself in a very angry letter written to the film’s producers (this is again, in second grade) begging them to adapt as completely as possible Book Five to the screen. All the tiny, minute details, all of the characters, story arcs, dialogue, etc. I was 9, and I thought I was entitled to a complete version of the film. A transliteration. (The letter remained unsent, for the record.)
I had the same issues with several other films, but I think the majesty of something I saw as so fantastical and enjoyable really struck me. Seeing those changes in the film versions of my favorite books literally offended me. I scoffed at the screen. I probably deemed whatever film it was poor due to the numerous changes. The 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula always annoyed me because they omitted several characters, “destroying” an intriguing plot. For, at that age, I could not be satiated unless it was as accurate as possible.
However, as I grew older and I began to understood film more and more as medium, as an entertainment device, etc. I realized that these departures should be fine, so long as they cohere with the rest of the film. It’s the reason I had such an issue with the screen version of Les Miserables: you approach a film almost blindly usually, with very little context. That’s supposed to be made up in exposition, extra scenes, etc. Les Miz didn’t have that, but neither did the musical. The reason being is that the approach is different. The point being, with no context, you should be able to go into a film adaptation of a book and get a majority of it. Sure, there will be some nuances missed or not understood, some in jokes to please the readers, etc., but generally speaking, it should be a simple, fun, engaging ride.
Now that I’ve understood that literature and cinema, despite their connections and roots, should be able to operate alone, there are a few exceptions I’ve noticed, in terms of how I treat and come back from a film. One of the first is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I count this as a notable exception because the film was directed by its original author, Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Rarely, as far as I know, does the original author direct and write the screenplay of the film version (the focus being “and”). In that film, you’re supposed to get the full vision, the full realization of the characters that the author created. And, all said and done, it’s pretty good. There are some notable differences in how the subject matter is treated, and with that ambiguity comes a couple problems: Chbosky spent so much time tiptoeing around certain aspects of his original novel that he mentions a couple things and then drops them without resolution. A couple characters jump the gun and don’t make a “complete circle” in terms of evolution. But, all things considered, these are pretty minor issues. The most important stuff is in there. And yet it’s not a transliteration. It still remains a film that can be treated separately from its source material.
I talked about transliterations a while back in my review for Mildred Pierce and I would like to bring it up again. I haven’t read the entirety of the original novel, but, rewatching the series, I’m struck not only how faithful the series is, but how good it is. Part of the issue of transliterations conceptually is that it doesn’t bring much originality to the table. It suffocates the work (see: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen). But even though Mildred Pierce was exhaustively adapted, using a majority of the dialogue and nearly every scene from the book, it still breathes life into the novel. It is not merely because it’s a film of the novel, but because it still remains an interpretation, primarily that of director Todd Haynes. In interviews, Haynes stated that although there book was essentially the text, he wanted to have every screen from Mildred’s perspective, giving the film a slightly subjective lens. That alone frees it from being exhaustingly dull and commonplace. What may be as important as the source material in an adaptation is the passion the maker brings to it, which includes their interpretation.
That said, had this not occurred, had the film not so lovingly been adapted from the book, with the words practically lifted off the page, I don’t think I would have given the film a pass. It’s a curious thing I’ve noticed over the last few days, actually. For some reason, I’m less inclined to give television adaptations any kind of leniency than I am film.
With film, you’re allotted a narrow amount of time, usually, which means that a lot has to be cut out and a lot has to change in order to meet those constraints (though, I still don’t understand why the dialogue can’t be retained). With television, you’re given an incredible amount of freedom, especially in terms of time, if not necessarily with budget. So, I believe the preconception I approach television adatations with (and others do the same, I think) is: “They have all that time, which means they should be able to get in a majority of the details in there.”
I’ve been rewatching some of the more recent ITV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s books, particularly those starring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the spinster Miss Marple. I’m a bit rusty on the novels, but I still remember a fairly good deal about them, at least the main arcs and characterizations. But I noticed some rather drastic deviations. The Nicolas Winding Refn directed episode of Marple called “Nemesis” retains one conceit from the novel and throws the rest away, even changing the murder, the victim, the perpetrator, and the motive. SparkNotes, in comparison, would be far more accurate. I resented this change. Why bother changing all of that? Why bother adapting that book in the first place? For the episode “By the Pricking of My Thumbs”, one of the protagonists is characterized as a resentful alcoholic. Um, why? Was it an attempt to add depth to that character? Was it an attempt to fix a plot hole? (The novel was originally intended for Christie’s Nick and Nora-esque detectives, Tommy and Tuppence, who are relegated to supporting roles in the TV adaptation.) 2010 brought a new adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel Murder on the Orient Express, but even then, I found the changes to be extraordinarily inessential. The darker tone, the focus on Poirot being a Catholic, the change of characters, the drop of an important piece of evidence, etc. No, that episode did not “pass my test”. The book had earlier been adapted by Sidney Lumet in 1974 (garnering Ingrid Bergman with her third Academy Award), and that one was rather accurate, but also contained seemingly bizarre, “unnoticeable” changes. Many of the changes in both television series’ earlier incarnations would probably only be noticeable to avid readers, so why bother changing them at all if they’re so minute?
The approach is the same: more time, more reason to add or retain details. I, Claudius (based on the books I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves) gets it right (including chunks of dialogue too), so why can’t everyone else? It may not have to be a transliteration, but the faithfulness was lacking in the Christie series.
To completely generalize, I believe that we hold film adaptations of books under such scrutiny because it is usually a book that we care deeply about. As much as I adore and love cinema, books are something very special and unique. They can be just as, if not more, transportive than film. But, I believe it’s good to let go, to allow the two to be, for the sake of an analogy, cousins, if not brothers and sisters. And I believe that I hold television accountable, not only because of the spacious room they seem to be given in how they’re able to tell their story, but because I want to be enveloped in what I fell in love with for a longer period of time than a movie adaptation can do. It’s not right, but it’s my flaw.
That said, I love film and books both completely and passionately.
There may be guns, girls, and pink balaclavas, but beneath the veneer of the naughtiness of spring break in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an interesting look at women who are able to be empowered despite the oppressive patriarchal environment around them. Spring Break itself cultivates this oppression. This sense of feminism is so strong that the lead girls, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine, are able to subvert the very notion of the patriarchal environment and take a hold of it with a bang. And by bang, I mean with guns.
From the moment the film begins and Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” blares non-diegetically over bodies slathered in booze, it is clear that we are encountering the New American Dream from the male perspective. Spring Break is not only a very “white” thing, but a very “male thing”. As aforementioned, there are tons of women in these Malick-esque Girls Gone Wild montages , but these women are subscribing to a very male oriented fantasy. Who really holds the power here? Who really is dictating these fantastic images, both from the point of view of the camera as well as culturally? Guys. Modern Spring Break is essentially created for the modern male. Who else would even come up with a title like Girls Gone Wild?
So, in this male driven fantasy, the images of girls are purposely being objectified to present a very specific view and perspective: the Male Gaze. Women fellating popsicles, close-ups of twerking and jumping up and down; this is what people my age (apparently) dream of doing. The subservience of the women, though, is obvious by the above examples: the women are not exactly exerting power in these; they’re performing for a male audience. While one could argue that the performativity of this could be power in itself, it’s the unknowingness and apathy with which the women perform that suggests their submission.
However, this dynamic of the conventional Male Gaze objectifying its minor characters, as naked as the day is young, changes once we finally meet our main characters. The ogling does not stop, per se, but it takes on a different power and a different message. It isn’t ogling; it turns into staring with wonder, shock, and possibly horror, suggesting that the Male Persona that inhabits the camera, that is the camera might have underestimated the women in the film.
One of the first indications of a power shift, a subtle one in the film, doesn’t even seem like it. Towards the beginning of the film, Ashley Benson fills a squirt gun with water and pulls the trigger while aiming the barrel into her mouth. While snickering, she puts her mouth around the barrel and continues to squirt water into her mouth. Obviously simulating oral sex on the gun, it seems like something more similar to the montage that was seen moments ago in the film. But that it is a gun changes the dynamic. They have not even arrived in Florida yet, and Hudgens is testing out how wild and powerful she can be.
Many examples follow later, at least in terms of the girls interacting with guns, but they all seem to suggest the same thing: the girls finding empowerment where men usually would. Guns in and of themselves represent a very masculine ideal. They’re created to kill, which is, culturally, a very masculine thing. But the Freudian motivations behind this are shown in the phallic nature of the weapons. Weaponry in general takes on very male-centric images, resembling phalluses and testes, but when women hold guns, there’s generally a sexualiation of it. The women are made to be sexy, as opposed to embracing their own agency and power. This seems most indicative of the scene with Hudgens and the gun.
Their rampage begins, however, with the simple robbery of a chicken joint. These scary monsters who parade as nice sprites unleash a very masculine rage inside the chicken joint, using weapons, and even using sexist terms like “bitch.” Even something as seemingly tame as that term presents the characters as transcending their nubile façade, taking charge of the location. But they laugh at their rage, brush it off, and willingly admit that they used squirt guns. They basically got away with impersonating the “typical male,” one that exudes violence, power, and a strong sexual drive to dominate. This impersonation, however, becomes much more real later.
There are more guns down in Florida when the girls meet the human manifestation of their original alienation from society: James Franco’s Alien. His masculinity also showcases in how much power he has in the Spring Break habitat. Although he embodies the “get rich or die tryin’” archetype of rappers, his masculinity is embodied in the gun show that exhibited in his bedroom. Walls upon walls of firearms! Guns, guns, guns! And, as Franco says, his teeth gilded, “Look at all my shit!” This is further epitomized by Alien’s obsession with Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface. He’s got the film “on re-peat”, as he says several times. This idolatry of one of the most villainous anti-heroes of film is telling; what’s the most memorable moment of that film? When Al Pacino shouts “Say ‘Hello’ to my little frien’!” of course. He bursts through with an M-16 with a grenade launcher, which explodes, again representing the phallic nature of the gun. Burst, load, the barrel. All of these terms aresexualized, and all of them are staples of power, dominance, and masculinity.
This scene is the most disturbing of all. When we are presented with Franco’s Alien, it’s clear that he’s the ringleader of his gang. But a critical change occurs when he’s showing off his belongings. Benson and Hudgens pick up a pistol and an automatic pistol, both fitted with silencers. Franco shows his fear, telling both to stop pointing at them and that they’re loaded and that they’re dangerous. But that, for the girls, is what intrigues them. It’s a shift in paradigm for the culture, not just the two of them, and how the culture, dominated by men, perceive this scene. The girls press Franco against the wall of his bed and shove the silencers in his mouth, whispering that they may have used him to get where they are now. There’s a carnal, animalistic sense to this scene. It is not exactly that the girls are letting out their wild side, not like they were in the parties and montage scenes, but they seem to be revealing their true nature. Now, these girls have the power, even over Franco.
What’s frightening about this sequence is that after Franco gets over his fear, he buys into this shift. This subversion of expectation is surprising, but the fact that Fraco accepts this also is. I suppose that it is a reflection of myself as a viewer that I was surprised by the power, or frightened rather, that these girls exerted over Franco. He has become the submissive archetype, and he becomes “turned on” by this shift. He seems to willingly accept this, and begins fellating the silencers. Together, almost unified, they’ve come to a silent agreement: Franco may still be the front for this gang, but now it’s all about the girls.
I was struck by this scene in particular and its resemblance to a scene in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, which is based on the play by Tracey Letts. In the film, there is a similarly disturbing scene, and one that garnered the film an NC-17. The amoral cop-slash-hit man Joe (Matthew McConaughey) carries out his retribution by having the wife of his client (Gina Gershon) fellate a chicken wing from KFC. It’s a violent scene, that is also rather gross, but entirely commonplace in terms of BDSM dynamics. You have an archetypal dominant character who is male and you have an archetypal submissive person who is female. Spring Breakers turns this on its head and switches those roles, basically to subvert the expectations of audiences who think they’re familiar with BDSM scenarios. But even when the roles are switched in terms of male/female dominant/submissive scenarios, in mainstream media, this switch is often used to sexualize the dominant archetype. So, in most cases, the female, regardless of role, is sexualized and objectified. If my recollection serves me correctly, the scene in Spring Breakers is not sexy. Its eroticism may lie in how dangerous it all feels (which is part of the appeal to Alien and the audience), but the Male Gaze is fearful, as is the audience, and looks at these girls with awe and wonder. (Also, I think there’s a lot of time that the camera spends on Franco with his mouth full.)
Is there a double standard here, in terms of the NC-17 rating versus the R rating? I don’t know. You would expect (or I would) that the sexualisation of the woman in Killer Joe, regardless of how violent it is, would garner the R, as the MPAA has a tendency to let more conventional and archetypal “male-as-dominant” scenarios get away with things, and not subversive or transgressive scenarios. So, I don’t know.
This transition of power is also evident in the balletic sequence featuring the timeless track “Everytime” by Britney Spears. Undoubtedly the most elegant and show-stopping scene in the film, the women exert as much power as any man in the situation, toting their guns and pink balaclavas with fervor. Though, as they stand by the piano, they circle around with their guns, acting like typical young girls listening to their favorite song. This transition and change in personality only proves that the women truly embrace their power and agency in their ability to oscillate between the masculine and the feminine.
Their feminism and embracing of power comes to a climax with the raid of Gucci Mane’s mansion. Gucci Mane, too, represents a certain male archetype, just as invested in hedonism as Franco. But his dynasty of masculinity (with more sex and drugs than even Franco) comes crumbling down. Franco “leads” the remaining girls, Hudgens and Benson, to the assault, and only moments after they take a step on the neon lit dock, their dominant position in the gangsta hierarchy is solidified with Franco’s death. Still dressed in only a bikini, the somewhat cartoonish and unbelievable battle is in the girls’ favors. This weird, inconceivable battle depicts the girls being totally invincible. This invincibility may be a metaphor for their true empowerment, their true upheaval of the patriarchal standard in that society. It may be them finding “their true selves”.
As the girls drive away back home, on their journey to forget what’s happened, they still have that slick car to remind them that they’ve found power like no one else: by inhabiting a male persona and subverting that persona to its very core.
Korine’s film might have similar origins to Zack Snyder’s detestable pseudo-feminist videogame Sucker Punch, but where Korine succeeds is granting his characters legitimate power without being preachy, subverting the very Male Gaze that drives the society and culture it deconstructs, and creating characters that are nuanced and can oscillate between masculine and feminine personas. As I said, the girls get away with it all, and with a bang.
It’s not exactly a mystery that I’m a huge fan (dare I say “fanboy”?) of the Criterion Collection, that distribution company which releases some of the greatest, strangest, and most important films on DVD and Blu-ray. Someone recently asked me what my wish list of Criterion releases would be, and I thought to myself, “Oh gosh, how can I even think?” So, I narrowed it down to a few and instead oof writing a long essay on my choices, I thought I might write what I would want or hope to imagine would be on the back of the cover. You know, those long winded paragraphs explaining why the film is in the collection, that, despite the number of syllables in each sentence, manage to be surprisingly succinct. (These are not necessarily films that “deserve” to be there, but ones I would like to be there nonetheless, because I think they deserve it.) Well, here it goes, my Criterion Wish List.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
Though it was scorned upon its initial release, continuing Hepburn’s reputation as “box office poison”, Howard Hawks’ brilliant film set the standard for the screwball comedy. Hepburn and Grant jump through wacky scenarios with great aplomb, and while its humor never ceases in any sense of the word, it is also the clever innuendos and sly commentary on the battle of the sexes that make this 1938 film a classic and on numerous lists as one of the best comedies ever made.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) | Directed by Marc Forster
Harold Crick hears voices in his head, but it isn’t schizophrenia. It’s someone narrating his life. Yes, Will Ferrell’s nuanced performance as Crick is the protagonist of a novel, and this, shall we say, “novel” approach to the existential drama makes for a memorable, yet underrated film. Filled with raw emotion, contemplations on the nature of tragedy and comedy, and clever visual effects, Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction is a unique, funny, and breathless film. (Art by grannyhall)
Manhattan (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
While Annie Hall may have marked a change in Woody Allen’s style, his masterpiece Manhattan marked the true transition from the laugh a minute bonkers style of Bananas to the more mature and heartfelt comedy of his later career. Photographed in gorgeous black and white by Gordon Willis, scored to the swelling and bustling music of George Gershwin, and set against the intellectual circles of Upper East Side Manhattan, Allen’s triumph is an exploration of relationships, maturity, intellect vs. morality, ethics, and love. (Art by trespasserswillbebeaten)
Clue (1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Is Clue the best film adaptation of a board game of all time? Taking place at the height of the Red Scare, while McCarthyism is rampant and J. Edgar Hoover has everyone on his list, Clue takes a group of people who are all connected by Washington DC and… a murder. But who did it, where, and with what? An all star cast presents a number of hilarious suspects. As the bodies stack, so the laughs, and beneath the veneer of hilariousness is a look at the effects of paranoia and Communism in the upper class. (Art by vargtimmen)
Mulholand Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
He made his mark in the 1970s with the cult classic Eraserhead and later in television with the iconic Twin Peaks. But David Lynch’s most poisonous love letter to Hollywood and cinema would start off as a pilot and transform into one of the most intriguing and enigmatic puzzle box films ever made. Mulholland Dr. puzzled audiences upon its release and continues to do so to this day. Featuring stellar performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, travel down the road into a dream world and a nightmare. (Art by Midnight Marauder.)
Oslo, August 31st (2012) | Directed by Joachim Trier
He started out as a skateboarder, but Joachim Trier triggers more than mere adrenaline in his humane drama and loose remake of Louis Malles’s The Fire Within. In Oslo, August 31st, a young man just out of rehab (played beautifully by Anders Danielsen Lie) comes back to his home town once more to say goodbye. Few films are as raw and meticulously imbued with feeling as this outstanding Norwegian drama from one of the up and coming directors of this generation. (Art by grannyhall)
I’m sure there will be a bevy, a multitude, an avalanche of more eloquent remembrances of Roger Ebert than mine, so I will keep it short and sweet.
Without him, I would have never started this blog in the first place. At 13, I would have never started writing reviews. At 8, I would have never started to talk about film incessantly. He is my hero and my inspiration, and one of the biggest reasons why I love film and why I ever wanted to delve into its history and analyze its nuances, magic, majesty, and sometimes its follies.
I may not have always agreed with him, or even liked some of his reviews, but I always, always admired his passion and integrity. Losing him, even though I’ve never met him or even made contact with him, is like losing the person who got you into the thing you love and are intensely passionate about.
As Chris Jones titled his beautiful profile of Ebert, he will always be The Essential Man.
Goodbye, Mr. Ebert, and thank you.
P.S. I also want to thank everyone who reads this blog or has ever read my writing. It means the world to me. Thank you to all the film enthusiasts, bloggers, critics, buffs, etc. whom I talk to or have talked to, for you, like Ebert, have taught me a great deal about the movies, life, and writing and have made me a better critic and writer (and sometimes person). Thank you all, so much.