Teaser trailer for Suga, a forthcoming animated short film by Stephen Abanto, a friend and student from Silliman University. Looks good so far! Have been waiting for this forever, and it’s nearing completion!
April never makes much of an impression on my memory. March is always about wrenching goodbyes and plodding hard work you can't forget. Summer starts blooming for real in May. April is only limbo and taxes and mind-numbing quiet during the high holy days and your body's fight against the sweltering heat.
Every year, around Holy Week, I watch without fail a film that is still officially banned from screening in the Philippines -- Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ , based on the searing and very controversial novel by the Greek writer Nikolas Kazantzakis. What I have always found ironic about the controversies surrounding both texts is that the protests -- always rabid -- seem to come from the camp of fundamentalist Christians who find in Last Temptation the ultimate blasphemy with regards Christianity. (And often they sharpen their knives without even bothering to see the film or read the book. They have only heard about some salacious details -- for example, that the texts show Jesus abandoning the cross and marrying Mary Magdalene, and having a family with her. Sacrilege! But if only they got the point of that pointed deviation from the Gospel.)
And I have always thought that these texts are in themselves the most Christian of all secular attempts to understand God, and every year when I see this film I am reminded again and again about the singular beauty of my faith: that there was Christ who is God made flesh and born in this world; and that there was His bloody sacrifice on the cross on our behalf, "to wash away our sins," as the Bible says.
But we, in all our unquestioning wallowing of dogma, always forget the ultimate dilemma of the Christ: he was part God, part man. The film and the book make us imagine Jesus treading that fine line of his dual nature: he is free from sin -- but that does not mean he is free from all the temptations humans face; he knows he is called to make that final sacrifice -- but why him? why that kind of pain? and for these people? The film's epigraph, taken from Kazantzakis himself, goes: "The dual substance of Christ, the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God... has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh... and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met."
In the end, on the cross, where the clip above takes us, Jesus is confronted by an ethereal child who calls herself his "guardian angel." This is in fact Satan giving him his final temptation -- to give up the cross, to give up being the Messiah, and to live from henceforth a comfortable life, perhaps with Mary Magdalene, perhaps with family. The child knows how to tempt: that soothing, knowing voice, invoking even Scripture -- it knows the thwarted sacrifice of Abraham, for example; it knows how to coat logic and sentimentality into temptation. The child shows Jesus the kind of life he could have, if he gives up the cross. He is tempted. He is, after all, half-human.
What we don't see in this clip is Jesus' final response: he says "no" to the final temptation, denounces the child as Satan in disguise -- and brings to accomplishment God's mission for him on earth: to die for our sins to give us eternal grace.
What a beautiful message that is, and also something that exquisitely paints for us the agony of the Christ's dual nature. Only the truest Christian, if I may say so, can appreciate something like Last Temptation. And learn from it.
Summer Finn: Well, you know, I guess it's 'cause I was sitting in a deli and reading Dorian Gray and a guy comes up to me and asks me about it and ... now he's my husband.
Tom Hansen: Yeah. And ... so?
Summer Finn: So, what if I'd gone to the movies? What if I had gone somewhere else for lunch? What if I'd gotten there 10 minutes later? It was -- it was meant to be. And ... I just kept thinking... Tom was right.
Tom Hansen: No. [Disbelieving, a bewildered smile on his face.]
Summer Finn: Yeah, I did. [Laughs.] I did. It just wasn't me that you were right about.
There is a scene in Christian Faure's powerful and surprisingly deft Juste une Question d'Amour [Just a Question of Love, 2000] where a mother tells the lover of her gay son: "You're much too young to carry around all that useless pain." The boy has just been accidentally outed, and has subsequently been told by his very conservative family that he could not go home again.
Despondent, he finds everything else that matters in his life on the verge of collapse. There is only a world -- a vastness of it -- of pain. But Emma (the mother played by the brilliant Eva Darlan) gives that admonition without a tone of dismissiveness. She is not being patronizing either, but says it with that certain kind of knowing (the way the wisest people know) that we all carry in life a lot of "useless" pain; this is sometimes a cross we feel the necessity to carry, most often in consideration for the people we love. How does one not hurt the people we love? Sometimes we lie or we pretend to be someone else to do exactly that -- a well-intentioned, if totally misguided, endeavor. Yet, almost always, the eventual uncovering of this lies ironically ends up hurting more the very same people we vowed never to hurt. I'm not sure if I make sense here. But this is the "uselessness" of the thing: we don't have to bear the cross; bearing the cross never really helps in the long run; and yet, and yet...
This film is the story of an emotionally volatile young man named Laurent (the incandescent Cyrille Thouvenin), an agronomist in training. He's been flailing in school, roughly around the same time his cousin Marc died of hepatitis, after Marc had been thrown out by his parents on the event of his coming out as a gay man. Laurent is shocked and angry by the capacity of his family to do something so cruel -- and knowing that he is himself homosexual, he starts keeping secrets. He starts playing the "hetero game" for his parents, using his best friend and roommate Carole (the beautiful Caroline Veyt) as a kind of mustache. (Don't we know a lot of people exactly like this...) Carole genuinely loves him, but has long since given up on the idea of being with him. Later on, she gives him the ultimatum: that Laurent can't continually use other people just because he can't summon the courage to be exactly who he is. And then Laurent gets assigned by the school to train under Cédric (the wonderful Stéphan Guérin-Tillié), an older botanist of quiet ways and strong convictions.
They fall in love.
And now the drama begins. How does Cédric exactly convince Laurent that staying in the closet is never the answer to things? He tells Laurent, "I'm over with feeling shame now. I'm not ashamed to be with you." It is not that easy for Laurent. Hw does a son who loves his family risk losing them simply because they cannot conceive of the very idea of a gay son? Later on, Emma tells Cédric, her own son, that it is perhaps unfair of him to expect Laurent to run with the same velocity as he him. So you see how this goes: a whole lot of "useless" pain -- just a question of love among everyone involved, but love thwarted by the very idea of not wanting to hurt.
The emotional complexities laid bare in this film are treated with a genuine desire to engage, and it is to the credit of the filmmakers that a film such as this does not fall under the easy sentimentality of a Hallmark TV movie. It is a deftly-handled film that not only takes in the consciousness of our gay protagonists, but also takes into account the weight of everyone else's pain -- the roommate and best friend, the mothers, and the fathers. It also tells, with unwavering commitment, their story, their struggles to accept something that brings them a measure of pain. And that perhaps makes this a superb achievement: the film offers no caricatures or easy solutions, it brings up all the nuances of complicated personal stories such as this, it banishes away easy sentimentality, and it creates totally human characters who are all capable of so much depths. Near the end of the film, a simple declaration of "Je t'aime, je t'aime" has never sounded so emphatic, so real.
Truth to tell, I still cannot believe this is actually a TV movie. A TV movie in France! It has all the epic elegance and emotional weight and the beautiful frankness of a regular French feature film.
Many years ago in Graduate School, I read Hélène Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa." This is her influential essay of post-structuralist feminism where she lays down her description of ecriture feminine, that style -- or form? -- of writing that is distinctively female (although not "owned" exclusively by women), libidinal, freedom-seeking, non-linear, idiosyncratic, the Dark Continent that taunts and devours the linearity of phallocentric literature -- chapters, beginnings, middles, and ends -- which is scared of it and has confined it, like Jane Eyre's madwoman in the attic, in history. As Farhan in The Greatest Literary Works blog, in this wonderful short post on Cixous, writes: "This writing is a political act, a writing through the body that would sweep away syntax... The literary text of the libidinal feminine must tolerate freedom from self-limitation and from neat borders, from beginnings, middles, and ends, from chapters. Such texts will be disquieting." I like that word, disquieting, because this is exactly how I feel reading Marguerite Duras's Yann Andréa Steiner [Gallimard, 1992]. Ostensibly a memoir of Duras' love affair with a much-younger man, it hopscotches with narrative, bending time and location at will, like how one deals with recollection, and suddenly she immerses us in parallel storylines that seem to rise out of nowhere -- there's Duras and Steiner, first of all, and then perhaps to make sense of that unconventional relationship, she writes suddenly of a boy and a baseball cap-wearing shark and a singing fountain, and a boy and his sister murdered in the Holocaust, and the "romance" of a six-year-old boy and an 18-year-old female camp counselor in the disquieting end of World War II. It was a bewildering read, a perfect example of ecriture feminine if I may say so. No chapters, just a loose connecting thread where people weep a lot. But I read on, intent on finishing the slim volume, and perhaps fueled by what I can appreciate about Duras' prose: her lyricism. And yet, I couldn't even pretend to know what's going on. The text baffled me. There's a passage in the book where the camp counselor tells the young boy a story about that other young boy and a shark, who takes the boy away to an island called Triantywoppitygong -- and the storyteller does not pretend this is something she has completely made up. Of course, we realize that she is telling both truth-seeking myth and nonsensical narrative at the same time -- but I was ready to take the book as a perfect example of such a trip to nonsense land. But only in the end did I realize I've been reading it the wrong way. This book, like poetry, is meant to be read out loud. Only when I did so did the full force of her story take hold of me, the drama of it, the beauty of it, the cruelty of it, the sheer passionate confoundment of it.
Consider this opening scene from Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany's , a lovely film based on the novella by Truman Capote. It is a composition of such lovely well-considered cinematic elements -- a scene so complete in itself and yet also manages to be a good evocation of the film's eventual themes, gently balancing both pathos and comedy, all done with a sense of great style. We open to a shot of New York. Manhattan in the early morning light. The edifices of great buildings, swathed in a scene of utter loneliness. The streets are deserted. There is something romantic about this picture -- lonesomeness in the metropolis. And then a yellow taxi slowly comes towards us, to the foreground. Out steps a beautiful young woman. Audrey Hepburn. Coifed hair. Dressed in stylish black cocktail dress. The camera shifts, and we are behind her. She gingerly goes towards the front doors of Tiffany's, shuttered still but its show windows -- displaying jewelry, perhaps hope -- are already open for window shoppers. In the background, the score for Henry Mancini's "Moon River" swells, lovely and remote. The music paints for us a semblance of the young woman's dreams. It draws us in emotionally. Suddenly, we feel for this character: this stylish young woman who suddenly seems sad to us. She is beautiful, but like all beautiful things, she is sad. She takes out a pack of food. A brown bag. A tumbler of coffee and a bagel. She starts eating as she looks at each display. She moves about casually from window to window. She turns a corner. And when she is done, she throws what remains of her breakfast into a nearby trash bin, and walks away as casually as she had come in. A perfect scene: no dialogue, just a girl, a lonely city, and forlorn music. It's a virtual short story all its own.
I finally signed off the cover of Beautiful Accidents: Stories, my short story collection out from the University of the Philippines Press very soon. I designed this together with local photographer Clee Andro Villasor.
With input from the publisher, we had to agree to brush out a little bit of the guy’s shoulders, for modesty’s sake. That was funny. :) It's off to the press right this minute. Final publication and launching details soon. This one contains all my so-called domestic realism, including the Palanca-winning stories "Old Movies," "The Hero of the Snore Tango," and "Things You Don't Know." Please buy, eh?
Watching Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad [1961, and you can view the entire film here] reminds me of my earnest college days when I spent so much time and effort digging up obscure film titles from everywhere in the city, hoping to go far in my incredible thirst for a proper film education. (Where did that passion come from?) I devoured everything: film criticism by Pauline Kael and other luminaries, biographies of directors and classic movie stars, available film titles -- gleaned from all those readings -- which I found in Betamax, VHS, and laser disk format from assorted vendors around town who had no idea they had a treasure trove of classics in their midst. (Where are they now?)
I've always wanted to watch Resnais' film -- but this was one of the many titles that were so rarely available then that I had to contend with only hearing or reading about their legendary status on paper. And perhaps that was also one of the reasons why it took me so long to find Marienbad: its reputation as one of cinema's greatest enigmas -- alongside Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura , Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel , and Robert Altman's 3 Women  -- gave me ample reasons to delay my screening. Was I ready? Did I have the time and the concentration to finally watch it? But I've already watched Antonioni's, Buñuel's, and Altman's celebrated films many years ago, and loved them in fact. What was keeping me from watching Marienbad? Fear of being confounded, I guess.
Nevertheless, I finally did. Tonight.
And the critics and the books were right: what a strange film this is. It's overtly formal in composition, it's cold in its looping narrative, but it's also endlessly fascinating. It had a peculiar grip I can't define that had me going to find out what's happening next -- a reception that was perhaps even better than my own take to Resnais' own Hiroshima, Mon Amour , an earlier film whose elliptical style is in display and is even more extended in Marienbad. This film was inexplicably sexy. Cold, but sexy. Mysterious, but sexy. Sure, it won't be everyone's cup of tea -- especially if your idea of a perfectly fine movie is, let's say, the totally vacuous and pedestrian Letters to Juliet . It loops endlessly in time and narrative; it surrounds itself with the ornate in gilded objects, mirrors, sculptures, and garden shrubs tortured to geometric shapes; it makes strange uses of parlor games and guns; it uses its actors -- all dressed to the nines -- in the repose of mannequins; it presents a kind of dread with its insidious organ music soundtrack; it moves with a camera designated as a vehicle for dreamlike sequences; it riddles itself with subtle symbolisms and startling imageries (the shadowless trees in the sculpture garden, for example, see below); and puts all of these things in the service of a non-story about a man [named X in the screenplay, but never explicitly named in the film] who narrates what happens (or what does not happen), a woman [named A] that the man seems to pursue for some reason and that he's trying to convince they've met a year before, and another mysterious man [named M] that the woman seems to be under the control of. This film begs for the most fervent interpretation.
Resnais has been asked before what it all meant, and he famously said in an interview: "It's not my role to give explanations. For that matter, I don't think the film is a real enigma. By that I mean the spectator can find his own solution, and it will, in all likelihood, be a good one. But what's certain is that the solution won't be the same for everyone, meaning that my solution is of no more interest than that of any viewer."
The video of that interview can be found below:
In other words, the film is a Rorschach experiment. How you read it is a projection of your deepest desires, needs, wants. Or how you read is how you want it to be read.
So what does it all mean to you? In film critic Roger Ebert's Great Movies article on the film, he quotes Gunther Marx, a professor of German at the University of Illinois: "I'll explain it all for you. It is a working out of the anthropological archetypes of Claude Levi-Strauss. You have the lover, the loved one and the authority figure. The movie proposes that the lovers had an affair, that they didn't, that they met before, that they didn't, that the authority figure knew it, that he didn't, that he killed her, that he didn't. Any questions?''
But this is the explanation I like best. And perhaps it is because I am a writer endlessly fascinated by the sometimes surprising turns in the lives of the characters I create. It's still from Ebert, and he writes: "Can it be that X is the artist -- the author, the director? That when he speaks in the second person (``You asked me to come to your room ... '') he is speaking to his characters, creating their story? That first he has M fire a pistol, but that when he doesn't like that and changes his mind, M obediently reflects his desires? Isn't this how writers work? Creating characters out of thin air and then ordering them around? Of course even if X is the artist, he seems quite involved in the story. He desperately wants to believe he met A last year at Marienbad, and that she gave him hope -- asked him to meet her again this year. That is why writers create characters: to be able to order them around, and to be loved by them. Of course, sometimes characters have wills of their own. And there is always the problem of M."
Last Year at Marienbad as a metaphor for writing. I'll take that.
I had no idea they adapted Christopher Isherwood's celebrated memoir Christopher and His Kind for the screen last year. I only stumbled onto it while looking for a suitable film to watch on a slow Sunday afternoon in Movie25. But here is Geoffrey Sax's capable film made for BBC 2, which indeed has the feel of smallness of a TV movie production, but transcends that limitation with its witty screenplay, its alluring acting, and the sheer pleasure of recognizing the depictions of real people (that's W.H. Auden! that's Gerald Hamilton!) and the depictions by actors playing real people who are fictionalized in the many stories of Isherwood's that we love. (It's quite meta that way.) That it tells a very personal story in the embrace of sweeping history (Berlin in the 1930s, during the last years of its splendid roaring, as it inches towards the seething dangers of Nazism..., and here we are in that blazing city with Christopher, and his poet friend Wystan, and the early love of his life Heinz) is part of its charms, and provides both the tension and the workable structure often absent in faithful biopics. It certainly does not shy away from its gay subject matter, and in fact begins with an older Christopher tapping away at his typewriter, making this frank confession: "Berlin meant boys." And boys we get. (Take note of that Douglas Booth as Heinz Neddermeyer. So dreamy.) But what I like about it is the way it gives us a glimpse into the writerly life -- and how the trappings of that life seem so similar for many of us: the creative cocoon of cafes, the cannibalizing of lives of people we know for the sake of our fiction, the requisite rebellion against familiarity and staidness, the juice we long for to feed our writings that we can only get by being an outsider. "I like being a permanent foreigner," Matt Smith's Isherwood confesses to Pip Carter's Auden. I feel that way all of the time.
This is my favorite scene from Todd Field's Little Children , adapted from the wonderful book by Tom Perrota. In this scene, bored housewife (and secret adulterer) Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) talks about Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, that epic of small French lives and the hankering for better things, with her book club. The other women in the club have attacked the book as a tale of an unrepentant slut who gets her proper comeuppance, but Sarah gets a sudden enlightenment about Emma's plight...
Sarah Pierce: I think I understand your feelings about this book. I used to have some problems with it, myself. When I read it in grad school, Madame Bovary just seemed like a fool. She marries the wrong man ... makes one foolish mistake after another... But when I read it this time, I just fell in love with her. She's trapped! ... She has a choice: she can either accept a life of misery or she can struggle against it. And she chooses to struggle.
Mary Ann:Some struggle. Hop into bed with every guy who says hello.
Sarah Pierce: She fails in the end ... but there's something beautiful and even heroic in her rebellion. My professors would kill me for even thinking this, but in her own strange way, Emma Bovary is a feminist.
Mary Ann: Oh, that's nice. So now cheating on your husband makes you a feminist?
Sarah Pierce: No, no, it's not the cheating. It's the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness.
I just finished Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men . No car chases, no guns, no special effects. Just twelve men talking around a table, all of them members of a jury arguing whether the defendant in a murder case is guilty or not. And yet it is one of the most intense movies I've ever seen. Of course I've heard of this film before -- yet I've never found myself wanting to watch for some reason or other. It has the distinct reputation of a film classic, and alas I still harbor a common pedestrian's misplaced anxiety over watching anything old, in black and white, something that's "reputable," or Good For Me. (For many people, these qualities are a kiss of a death in a movie; something about human nature insists on patronizing the dregs of culture, like the Saw series. Or Willing Willie.) Lumet's death a few days ago eventually pushed me to try this, his first feature film. I've loved other films of his before -- Dog Day Afternoon , Serpico , Network , Murder on the Orient Express , and The Pawnbroker  most of all, a film my friend John Stevenson thrust upon my unwilling hands and said: "Watch this," although I really didn't want to (and came away awed by the movie). I've also seen some of the others, but they were slight works in critical estimation, although entertaining still -- and always pulsating with the theme of social justice. And the blueprint for that is evident in this first film. Here, how Henry Fonda's lone dissenting juror triumphs in his unshakable pursuit of a reasonable doubt is a masterstroke in acting, but it is Lee J. Cobb's devastated and defeated sad-sack of a juror, with sad memories of his own son, that wrings out first our enmity and then later on our deep sympathies. As Fonda's character intones near the end of the film: "It's very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth." And I think that's what the film is ultimately about -- an examination of what we accept to be Truths in this life. What is Truth? How do we know if something is really truthful? And can we stake human life on something that can easily be obscured by our prejudices? Unfortunately, in this world, that injustice happens every single day. That jury room might as well be a metaphor, a microcosm, for all our lives.
8:35 PM |
Love Always Prevails, For Birds and Fate-Escaping Human Beings Alike
Is it still a spoiler if one reveals the ending of a film to be a cliche you've seen from too many movies? You know the kind. Love prevails. The kiss breaks the spell. Disney has made mountains of moolah from this simple formula we've seen in almost all fairy tales. But watching the same thing unfold in George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau  finally felt like a cheat. Did we deserve the ending we got, or was it a kind of shafting, a turn towards unforgivable Deux ex machina after the story had us already cartwheeling through what felt like an original take of a love story? See, we've been through so much already; we've invested so much in the likability of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt's pairing. He is a maverick politician with a bright political future. She is a beautiful dancer. They both live in New York. One night, after an event from the past nipped his chances for a successful Senatorial run, he is ready to call in the towel of politics. Moments before giving his concession speech, he retires to what seems to be an empty bathroom of the hotel his campaign his headquartered in -- and practices his loser's speech. And then she appears from one of the stalls, muttering apologies, batting eyelashes -- and they're in love, just like that. There's something believable about this Meet Cute moment, and that is vital to our interest in the story. See, Damon's would-be Senator comes out of that bathroom energized, and he gives the concession speech that makes his political career, turning a losing run into a future of great promise. But see, the Fates -- patrolled and controlled by a group of men in trench coats and fedoras called, well, "the adjustment bureau" -- only meant them to meet just once for that purpose, and to never meet again, or else they compromise both their potentials. But there's a kink in the system; they do meet -- and both must outrun their fates (quite literally, through magic doors, all over Manhattan) if they are to be united in true love. And we went: Awww.
Hell, the film made us sit at the edges of our seats in the theater asking this question without a trace of irony: "What would you choose, love or fate?" Carlo beside me said "Love." Anna and I said "Fate." It was a haunting question we've asked the Universe forever. We were that involved. And then the ending comes. Happy, yes. But a let-down of utter unoriginality.
Still the film has its heart in the right place. That it tries to do some genre-bending with this film is something to be lauded. It's not every day you get a dramatic love story infused with New York tourism, modern dance, the marketing in a political campaign, the philosophical handwringing over existentialism and questions of fate, and the whole kaboodle of religious readings. (Is The Chairman God?) I can picture Nolfi as the screenwriter pitching this to Hollywood this way: "It's The Bourne Identity meets Dark City meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!" And we do get elements from those: the endless running through city streets of Jason Bourne (and look! it's Matt Damon himself!), the ethereal manipulations of consciousness of the Strangers, and the mind-bending race to escape and preserve love of Joel and Clementine.
But having said all of that, I reckon the film is not an original at all. And so maybe we did deserve that cliche of an ending.
And yet it is different with this other film I saw yesterday. Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha's Rio , the sixth feature film from Blue Sky Studios, was the perfect antidote to a Monday that threatened to collapse under the weight of blah-ness. I caught it on the big screen, as any animated film of such glorious colors as this should be, with Jasper and Anna. We needed this kind of film. It was a delightful romp filled with just-nice-enough songs and a motley crew of lovable animal characters that have the splashy wit of a Brazilian sunshine. There was enough pop culture referentiality in it to delight the adults in us -- such as when the rumble scene started with somebody shouting "Birds versus Monkeys!" (a dig, of course, into the popular game of Angry Birds). But there was also enough romance, and enough side-splitting comedy. It doesn't have the emotional heft of last year's How to Train Your Dragon, but that's perfectly fine. It does say something about the evils of poaching, the tenuous bonds of friendship and trust, the quick iPhone-adaptability of marmosets, and the helpful white lies you can deliver to make your toucan wife allow you to do the Carnaval. It also has something to say about the metaphors of cages and flying. And of course, in the end, when everything else seems to fail, what prevails is true love.
“Movies, in other words, were part of what it meant to be modern. Viewers learned to dress and smoke and romance from movies, but they also learned how to be an audience. They were constituents in a new cultural democracy, one in which you voted by buying a ticket. The movies showed people new worlds that they experienced in groups in the nickelodeons, lavish palaces and multiplexes. We still commune with others when we watch a movie alone at home — if only in later conversation, online or in our head. But watching that movie with other people is a discrete experience from watching a clip on YouTube and noticing it has 200,000 hits, each a ghostly trace of someone else.”
When I was growing up in our old Villarosa house, the part of the ceiling right above my bed had more than a hundred luminous stickers of stars I had painstakingly arranged in constellations. Those tiny bright lights were the last things I'd see every time I went to sleep each night. They made me a dreamer.
I bought Galt Niederhoffer's The Romantics in BookSale a few days ago based on Janet Maslin's admiring review of the book in The New York Times a few years ago. I've read excerpts of it online, and found the language biting and witty in its satirical take of a WASP wedding set in New England. The story -- about a close-knit, if incestuous, group of nine friends who found each other while matriculating in Yale -- is meant to be an amusing dissection of white upper-class mores, and it is detailed in that regard (comparable perhaps to the taxonomy of the elite class explored by Edith Wharton, but informed by The Official Preppy Handbook), and Niederhoffer rises to the occasion with a sharpened scalpel, expertly treading the fine line between comedy and social butchery. During the rehearsal dinner scene, for example, one character toasts the groom of the WASPy bride this way: "Congratulations! You've social-climbed your first Everest." I enjoyed the book, even when it is about a hoary subject, which is treated a little too lightly. But I like its tone and its expertise of its subject matter; there is no false note here.
Which is something I cannot say about the movie adaptation, starring Kate Holmes, Josh Duhamel, and Anna Paquin -- and megged, incredibly enough, by Niederhoffer herself. It is as if the author, now the film director, forgot entirely what she wanted to do and say in her book, jettisoning much of everything (including the social commentary!) to do a Hollywood-specific focus on the romantic entanglements of the characters, which, if you ask me, are purely incidental in the book.
It is miscast, it is horribly acted by an otherwise capable cast, it is photographed so slovenly and drearily that I winced at every scene raped by cinematic miscalculation. I had to ask: how can Niederhoffer murder her own novel with this travesty?
Perhaps it was not such a good idea to jump right into Mark Romanek's adaptation of Never Let Me Go , so soon after finishing the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Reading a book allows us complete freedom in the construction of the imagined world presented to us on the page -- and the minute details of Hailsham, the Cottages, Norfolk, and then the anonymous Recovery Centers that dot the landscape of the novel are still fresh in the hold of my imagination.
The exactitude of a cinematic adaptation is often a disappointment, and the things that are excised from the literature to fit the constraints of a feature film's running time is often too glaring. And we always come way saying, "The book is better than the film." But sometimes, some films get a good balance of things, such as Steve Kloves' efforts in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter film series. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright, in adapting the Ian McEwan novel Atonement , also get it right: they are able to stage in the regular run of the film all the emotional inflections of the characters, all the right moments of drama and revelation, and all the set pieces [the Tallis mansion, the war-ravaged Dunkirk...] which are sumptuously recreated from the novel; there's faithfulness to the book, but also a vibrant originality all its own that keeps it from being a dry exercise in adaptation.
Alex Garland, also an acclaimed novelist, stays true to the chronology of the Ishiguro story, but must have been at pains in how to exactly put all of that down on paper and on celluloid, and the strain shows. Kathy H.'s tale -- compelling on the page because of its gripping, if too matter-of-fact, rendering of the various lives and secrets in Hailsham and the Cottages, and her unique way of making a veritable cliffhanger out of every incident she tells -- is perhaps difficult to film, since she does not exactly tell her story in a chronological way. She goes about it in a roundabout manner, always sifting through time and memory, plucking details out of the air of what she remembers, as she tells this "story": three friends -- Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy -- share a close-knit childhood in a special private school, where they are sheltered from the realities of the outside world for some reason, where they go through regimented ways and traditions not exactly explained to them, where they are not exactly told about their fates but are conditioned to accept them whatever those fates might turn out to be; and then they "graduate" to the real world in the Cottages where they confront the triangle they form; and then there's the harsher realities of becoming Carers and Donors and the inevitability of Completing and the precarious hope they cultivate for avoiding the fate forced on them...
Garland puts all that in, but does not manage to get us emotionally involved, and maybe that's because he omits what's necessary, and sets to tell the story in a straightforward manner rather than the emotionally informed roller coaster of the book's narrative. Take, for example, the stress on the Art for Madame's Gallery that becomes vital in the last third of the film (and in the book). The foregrounding of the relevance for this plot point is totally absent from the film, which inexplicably rushes through the Hailsham years as if this part of the story is nothing more than an unimportant flashback. What Garland and Romanek do not get is that the very theme of the story is memory. Everything about the Hailsham past and what happens in it informs the actions of the characters, including Ruth's treachery and eventual wish for redemption, and including the importance of the "art" Madame collects for her "Gallery." What foregrounds that in the first third of the film? Just Tommy drawing a misshapen elephant. The film doesn't even explain why it makes Tommy confess to Madame in the end why none of his childhood art ever got chosen for the Gallery.
But I'm quibbling too much. The film has its merits: it is beautiful, the music by Rachel Portman is perfection, and it is well cast. Carey Mulligan as Kathy brings out with such truth the quiet sureness, the knowing fierceness, and the subtle intelligence we glimpsed at from the pages.
In the end [spoiler alert!], the film quotes partly from the book, and has Kathy muttering this melancholy cry of acceptance at the Norfolk countryside -- that place "where all our lost things can be found" (a point the film never picks up): "I come here and imagine that this is the spot where everything I've lost since my childhood is washed out. I tell myself, if that were true, and I waited long enough then a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field and gradually get larger until I'd see it was Tommy. He'd wave. And maybe call. I don't know if the fantasy go beyond that, I can't let it."
The quote from the book stops there, but the film adaptation goes on this way: "I remind myself I was lucky to have had any time with him at all. What I'm not sure about, is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we've lived through, or feel we've had enough time."
And I found that point devastatingly true, and also ultimately sad.
I thought I'd read the book first, and then watch the film adaptation later. I've had the book for so long, but it was just there, among the various unread titles in the bulging bookshelves lining the walls of my apartment, waiting for my attention to wander and perhaps fix on it. The film kicked me towards the effort, and the way the book begins, "My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer for over eleven years...," struck me as strange, a little off-putting perhaps. I've read Kazuo Ishiguro before, in his timeless Remains of the Day, which was a great read, notably the masterpiece of a great stylist, and the deadpan way Never Let Me Go begins, complete with that strange abbreviation for the narrator's surname, did not exactly take to me as Ishiguro territory. But I was wrong. Because this is Ishiguro being a literary virtuoso, conjuring an entire and complete landscape of emotions and memory that had me occasionally gasping for air. Pieces of it are brilliant, they can almost stand as complete short stories themselves. And that section before the end, when Ruth exhorts Kathy and Tommy about what they must do -- that did me in. It was devastating. The whole book is devastating, and it's a cliche to say this but I could see pieces of my own childhood -- its hurts and recriminations, its playfulness and wonder, its consuming worldview -- in Hailsham, where the characters, when they were young, lived a kind of shadowy lives, strangely accepting of their peculiar lot (and fate) in this world. And that ending in that field in Norfolk -- where all lost things can be found -- is a finely-wrought set piece of utter desolation and hope, it was wrenching. The book made me sad, which is not a damning condemnation. It just seemed to me to be an uncanny looking-glass, totally unexpected, not exactly wanted, but it's there, I read through it, and I, left breathless, have nothing else to say.