Monday, March 24, 2008

thematic recurrences

It amuses me that Carol Spier, the woman who worked as the production designer for the insect-laden Naked Lunch (Film Club No. 25), was also the production designer for Joe's Apartment (1996).

If you don't recall this film, or the original short film on which it was based, suffice it to say that it's about a man who shares his apartment with a swarm of sapient roaches.

If only they'd also gotten Cronenberg to direct, we might really have had something.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

naked lunch, by david cronenberg

So this week, continuing on our "films about writers" thread, we turned to David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991).

Like many films in our recent sequence, this film blurs the line between biography and fiction, being partially a retelling of events from the life of writer William S. Burroughs, and partially a retelling of the novel Naked Lunch... a novel which, just to muddy the waters a little bit more, expends some of its narrative energy telling the tale of a Burroughs-esque writer, Bill Lee.

At first glance, Lee looks like a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Burroughs himself, an interpretation that's certainly helped along by the fact that Burroughs writes his first book, Junkie, using "William Lee" as his pseudonym. But try to read Naked Lunch as straight autobio and you won't get far: the book's narrative is so alien that it really lands closer to the realm of nightmarish science fiction than it does to the realm of memoir. So, long before Cronenberg comes along to complicate matters even further, one can already make onesself dizzy by playing the game of trying to discern which events in Naked Lunch are "real," which are false perceptions induced by drug addiction, and which are pure fiction invented by Burroughs.

Ultimately, of course, the answer to the question can never be determined (it's doubtful that even Burroughs himself could, or would, have distinguished between these three layers in a way we could have called "authoritative"). This confusion between reality and fantasy, between external realities and internal perceptual states, is perhaps a necessary precondition for the onset of paranoia, and, indeed, Burroughs is one of the 20th century's great chroniclers of the paranoid mindset. The world of Naked Lunch and Burroughs' later works is a world utterly riddled with conspiracies and confidence artists, a world in which the individual is, at best, a naive mark, and at worst, an unwitting cog in some vast, sinister operation. In Burroughs' world, it is possible to learn at any moment that all your human activity, whatever you thought you were doing out of free will, has in fact been merely you toiling in the service of a conspiracy designed to enslave and control you.

Cronenberg zeroes in on this aspect of Burroughs' work, and makes it the central narrative mechanism of the film. Cronenberg has explored this territory fruitfully in the past, most notably with his own Videodrome (1982), in which television executive Max Renn ends up as a kind of zomboid drone, having had his consciousness programmed and re-programmed by a pair of warring secret societies. But Renn has further to fall: at the outset of Videodrome he's essentially a functional member of society, and much of the film details the way he becomes enmeshed in the conspiracy, and begins to lose his identity. Lee, by contrast, begins Naked Lunch already on the fringes, his personality already only halfway operational, his status as a perceiving individual already questionable. This allows the hallucinatory / paranoid hijinks to kick in much earlier: nearly everyone he encounters in the film seems to know more about his life than he does, and before a dozen minutes have elapsed he's been picked up by police who officially inaugurate him into the film's mysteries by presenting him with a mysterious box:

—which contains this nasty fellow, who begins to give Bill cryptic instructions, and will continue to for much of the remainder of the film.

So, basically, Naked Lunch feels like the last twenty minutes of Videodrome expanded into feature length. It's so rife with double-agents and perplexing alliances that it becomes impossible to discern who's on which side, much less which side might constitute the "good guys." Puzzling out the intrigue is really beside the point anyway; the appeal of the film comes much more from watching Bill Lee's identity grow increasingly tattered under the grinding force of conspiracies and drugs. Poor Bill's personality ends up being so emotionally reversed that he scarcely reacts when he finds one of his only friends fucking his wife, but he's reduced to tears by the sight of a bowl of dried centipedes in a marketplace:

And that's only twenty minutes into a film that's about two hours long!

Final note: part of the disorienting effect of Naked Lunch derives from the fact that it's a very interior film. Although the film is ostensibly set in picturesque locales (New York City, and Interzone, a fictional analogue for Tangiers), Cronenberg bucks the demands of cinematic grammar by pointedly avoiding the use of any sort of establishing shot, in fact almost entirely avoiding any exterior shots whatsoever. This helps create a very effective insular feeling, adding to the overall menace and claustrophobia. Part of the credit here belongs to production designer Carol Spier, whose eclectic, jumbled interiors are some of the most lastingly memorable elements of the film for me:

Next week: Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

the hours, by steven daldry

This week, Film Club continued examining films about writers, looking at Steven Daldry's 2002 film The Hours. Like previous Film Club picks Adaptation and American Splendor, The Hours is interested in both telling the story of a writer's life (in this case Virigina Woolf) as well as retelling a story that that writer has written (in this case, Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway). (As a side note, it's a little bit surprising to me just how many movies split along these lines, once you start looking for them: next week we'll be looking at a fourth, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991).)

It gets a little more complicated than that, in that this split in and of itself is not Daldry's conceit, but rather originates in a second book, Michael Cunningham's The Hours. So even though Daldry's film retells the story of Mrs. Dalloway (in a way), it's not an adaptation of Woolf's novel in the strictest sense, but rather an adaptation of Cunningham's re-working of it, in his own novel.

Cunningham's novel (which I haven't read) retells the story of Dalloway (which I also haven't read), but transplants it to the contemporary era, specifically via the figure of Clarissa Vaughn (played nicely by Meryl Streep). The party-throwing, flower-buying Vaughn is presented as a modern-day analogue to Dalloway:

...although this analogy is complicated rewardingly by the fact that Vaughn exists in the same world as Woolf, and Woolf's novel, and is at least partially aware of the parallels between herself and Woolf's character. (She's referred to explicitly as "Mrs. Dalloway"—a literary friend has given this to her as a long-running, semi-affectionate nickname.)

The film also, albeit less explicitly, explores the way Woolf sees herself as a Dalloway analogue (or possibly sees Dalloway as an extension of herself). Furthermore, the film adds in a third analogue, Julianne Moore's Laura Brown, a bookish 1950s-era housewife, who is reading the novel Mrs. Dalloway, and clearly relates to the protagonist's ennui.

Much of the film's energy and appeal is generated by establishing parallels, echoes, and relationships between these three narrative strands. (The fact that this works at all means that editor Peter Boyle deserves a healthy share of credit: since the narrative strands are in distinct time-periods, and (mostly) don't overlap, the creation of these "echoes" often hinges upon effective use of cross-cutting.)

This could have been done as an experiment in postmodern gamesmanship, (keeping us firmly in Adaptation territory), but ultimately it tries to naturalize some of its strangeness. It also resists the tendency to treat the relationships between these characters as synchronicities or weird recurrent patterns in the universe (it would be rewarding to contrast this film's treatment of parallels between characters and narrative levels in the recent work of David Lynch (Mulholland Dr. (2001), say, or especially Inland Empire (2006)). Its usage of these parallels and echoes, ultimately, is in service of something more user-friendly, romantic even: an investigation of the appeal of an enduring fictional character. The film treats Clarissa Dalloway as a kind of template, archetype, or form—a persistent pattern which any number of women can overlay upon their own experience. In doing so, they align themselves, additionally, with Woolf, the figure from whom the character emerged.

This goes a long way, actually, towards explaining the lasting force of the notion of character itself.

Skunkcabbage's write-up is forthcoming.

Friday, March 7, 2008

adaptation, by spike jonze

Adaptation (2002) is ostensibly a film adaptation of New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean's 2000 piece of nonfiction, The Orchid Thief. But it's really about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's struggle to translate the book into a film. The film brings Kaufman in as a character, and spends a good portion of its run-time dramatizing his confusion, hesitation, distraction, and doubt; as such, it's one of the most memorable, and I would say accurate, depictions of the creative process ever brought to the screen.

Kaufman—at least the character Kaufman, as we see him in the film—struggles with a handful of distinct challenges in the adaptation process. One of them is that Orlean's book doesn't have a strong narrative arc, and furthermore, being highly meditative and reflective, the book doesn't have a lot of material in it that translates well to a visual medium. (The end product uses a lot of voice-over, and explicitly debates the merits and drawbacks of voice-over at more than one point in the film.)

Another problem is that Kaufman seems to have varying additional agendas for his screenplay that go beyond merely wanting to adapt the book successfully. He repeatedly says that he wants the finished film to be a genreless film "about flowers," that will have the end effect of showing audiences how "amazing" flowers are. ("Are they amazing?" Kaufman's fictional agent asks him at one point, to which the fictional Kaufman responds, despairingly, "I don't know.")

In addition to that, Kaufman wants the screenplay to be a work of realism. The desire for a truly realistic fiction, one that shrugs off the various artifices of fiction in favor of the "real stuff" of life has been an obsession of experimental writers for well over a century—it's clearly articulated as early as Zola—but it's no less a grail today than it ever was. (I'm not immune to the pull: nearly all of my own fiction written over the last ten years has been organized around this impulse.) Kaufman declares, early on in the film, that he doesn't want to write something "artificially plot-driven," without "sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like one another or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end."

And this raises yet another problem, namely, the demands of commercialism. The hypothetical adaptation that the fictional Kaufman proposes (within the space of the actual adaptation) sometimes sounds amazing (I, for one, might go to see a genreless movie about flowers) but also runs the risk of being an enormous mess, and looming constantly in the background is the threat of not only creative failure but also commercial failure. The danger that Kaufman might be taken off the project or that the project itself might entirely fail is never really stated outright, but it's underlined constantly by the inclusion of Kaufman's fictional twin brother, "Donald," who is crashing with Charlie and writing a screenplay of his own.

Donald's screenplay is for an unbelievably trite thriller called The Three. Trite, yes, yet also seemingly far more bankable, and towards the end of the film Charlie elicits Donald's help to finish the Adaptation screenplay, and the entire narrative lurches nauseously towards a passably commercial finale. There's some very sharp satire embedded here about the kinds of stories that a massive capitalist industry like the film industry is willing to invest in telling.

Ultimately, Kaufman seems to want to celebrate the power in the creative process: writers, after all, have a literally infinite number of ways to tell a story. At one point, Kaufman makes a decision that the film needs to incorporate a history of life on earth, and, indeed, the finished film dutifully provides this as a montage:

And yet this near-omnipotence is held endlessly in check, not only by the accompanying neurosis and crippling self-doubt, but also by the strictures of capitalism, the existence of a "professionally skeptical" financing system that determines which stories get told (or at the very least produced, or distributed). In its sharp-eyed analysis of this point, the film has a real tragic dimension to accompany its comic moments and metafictional playfulness.

Next week we continue with reflections on the art of adaptation with Skunkcabbage's pick, The Hours. His write-up on Adaptation is here.