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Summer Film Club: Steven Millhauser

20 Jul

In this biweekly series, Editorial Assistant Alyssa reviews popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa (who has no formal training in film) would like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

A neat poster for THE ILLUSIONISTHoo boy. What can I say? The best thing about The Illusionist is that it’s not too long. Well, it is “too long” in the sense that I checked my watch toward the end. It’s not too long, in the sense that it’s under two hours.

It’s an OK movie. My opinion (that it’s a waste of time) falls in the minority; most critics reviewed it favorably, and some lauded it as a parable for film itself. (I prefer to think of it as a parable of the dangers of tone-deaf adaptation.) This was my second time seeing it, which I don’t recommend. See it once if you’re really into magic or Edward Norton. (What do you see in him? I just think you could do better, is all.) You might want to skip it altogether if you’re into Steven Millhauser.

I have limited patience for didactic, Borgesian magical realism, but I do enjoy Millhauser. This story works for me because of its frank prose and its reluctance to state facts. The narrator tells us the story of Eisenheim, a turn-of-the-century Viennese magician who confounds his audiences by apparently raising the dead. (To those who cringe at period pieces, I say, “Necromancy never goes out of style.”)

“Eisenheim, the Illusionist” has an almost academic tone to it, as its narrator refers to old eyewitness accounts of Eisenheim and his performances (from critics, audience members, neighbors, et al.). The narrator’s acknowledgment of his uncertainty lets us trust him more: aren’t we more inclined to believe a person who appears to present us with the facts, rather than a clod declaiming his own interpretations as fact? But Millhauser’s direct language also lends credence to the most farfetched ideas:

“Some said that Eisenheim had created an illusory Eisenheim from the first day of the new century; others said that the Master had gradually grown illusory from trafficking with illusions.”

Now, we know (or do we?) that Eisenheim’s phantoms are just illusions (right?), because ghosts and the afterlife and the devil don’t exist ([nervous laughter]). But in the end, thanks to the narrator’s unbiased presentation of facts, we can’t say whether Eisenheim was living or dead, an illusionist or a magician. Mystery and subtlety are the crux of the story.

But all mystery and subtlety fly out the window in The Illusionist. I have a lot of issues with the film, so let’s begin at the beginning (unlike writer/director Neil Burger, whose screenplay starts in media res, during an attempt to arrest Eisenheim on stage).


THE ILLUSIONIST (2006), dir. Neil Burger. Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel.

The film stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, your titular illusionist; my beloved Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl, Eisenheim’s reluctant rival; Jessica Biel as a two-by-four Eisenheim’s star-crossed lover, Sophie; and Rufus Sewell as Sophie’s buzzkill of a fiancé, the Crown Prince Leopold. Sophie and Leopold don’t exist in Millhauser’s story; Uhl’s part, meanwhile, is expanded in the film. (Note to Hollywood: Not every story needs a romance, especially a romance as shallow and predictable as this one. You can’t force love, H-wood.) And it takes place almost entirely within what must have been the most exhausting and dramatic briefing of Inspector Uhl’s career, directly after his aforementioned attempt to arrest Eisenheim (start around 5:52 and watch until you get the idea/bored):

If someone referred to a childhood romance and the time I met a writer as “almost everything about my life,” I’d be annoyed, at least. And Uhl elides about fifteen years with the line, “What happens next remains a mystery.” (He should have added, “The only mystery in the entire film,” but more on that later.)

I’m in danger of nitpicking here, so I would like to say that I support suspension of disbelief. Whenever my scientifically-inclined boyfriend criticizes a film or TV show’s dubious grasp of science, we have to pause it so that I can pick up my eyeballs, which by the end of his sentence have rolled out of my head and across the floor. (One exception: I delight in Law and Order: SVU’s, um, imaginative depictions of technology.)

But one thing I will not abide, sir, is sloppy exposition. Look, The Illusionist, just show me the story. I don’t care who’s telling it. I’m not going to watch Edward Norton Eisenheim make people materialize out of thin air and think, “That’s all good and well, but who am I to assume is narrating this to me?” Uhl’s frame story is a cheap gimmick that tells me the rest of the story probably can’t hold my attention on its own, that its blandness or predictability necessitates a veil of suspense.

And speaking of gimmicks—the ending. It’s like writer/director Neil Burger read “Eisenheim, the Illusionist” and said, “This story is pretty good, but I think it would be better if we left nothing up to the imagination.”

And imagination is a key word here: I am mainly criticizing the film for its straightforwardness, for its refusal to let a mystery be. But do we go to films looking for mystery? A story takes place in our imagination; that is, we see it in our mind and fill in the blank spaces between words ourselves. But a film is placed in front of us, and what we see is what there is, presumably. Films don’t have blank spaces for us to fill in. But maybe, sometimes, they should.

Next time: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro and Away From Her (2006). As always, please leave suggestions in the comments below!

Summer Film Club: Annie Proulx

6 Jul

"Brokeback Mountain"

“Brokeback Mountain,” by Annie Proulx

How to Make a Great Film Adaptation:

      1. Find a brilliant but terse short story, preferably one with unconventional subject matter.

2. Convince a collaborator to help adapt it into a short, word-for-word screenplay. (Bonus points if your collaborator is the most acclaimed writer in the story’s genre.)

3. Send your first draft to the story’s author for a critique. Use her suggestions about developing aspects further to expand the screenplay to feature length. (Throw some nudity in there too. It is a movie, after all.)

4. Recruit a decorated director and some talented and beloved actors.

5. Win lots of awards.

Listen, Baz Luhrmann, Imma let you finish, but Brokeback Mountain may be the best film adaptation of all time.

I was a little nervous about this one. We’ve seen short story masterpieces marred by poor execution or hokey gimmicks before, and Annie Proulx’s writing is so region-specific that, in the wrong hands (or mouths), it has a lot of potential for a clumsy transition. Plus I felt that usual nostalgia trepidation, where you watch something that you loved years before, and you realize that it’s not very good and you were probably pretty immature back then. But I shouldn’t have worried.

“Brokeback Mountain” first appeared in the October 13, 1997, issue of the New Yorker and became an instant classic. Larry McMurtry (who adapted the story for the screen with his writing partner, Diana Ossana) called it “the best short story he’d ever read in the New Yorker.” Proulx, who had recently won all the literary accolades for The Shipping News, began receiving letters from men who saw themselves or their loved ones in the characters of Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist.

It’s not hard to see why. Proulx tells the heartbreaking tale of two lovelorn ranch hands in rural Wyoming in quiet, unintrusive prose that allows the reader to watch the story as much as read it. The omniscient narrator offers a window to Ennis and Jack’s lives, a view unrefracted by judgment or foreshadowing. Coupled with lengthy, vivid descriptions of the Wyoming landscape (which I will admit I tired of about halfway through, because I suffer the big-city pretension of finding nature boring), Proulx delivers a story cinematic in scope.

Ennis and Jack, the dogs, horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind.

Mmm. Beautiful. Can’t you just see that in a long, wide shot?

sheep river

Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) herd sheep in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

It’s a visual story, told in a straightforward, linear manner, without much subtext or symbolism that would translate awkwardly to film. Ossana believed it was “a near perfect story, in technique as well as emotion,” and “an excellent blueprint for a screenplay.” And indeed it is: although the story spans 20 years, it’s a collection of scenes; it doesn’t contain loads of exposition incommunicable in film outside of clumsy conversations or speeches. Ossana and McMurtry finished a draft in three months, using much of the story’s language.

Though Ossana and McMurtry worked quickly, they had eight years to go before Brokeback Mountain would see the light of day. Eventually it would star Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, with Ang Lee directing, and it would become one of the most awarded films of all time. But at first nobody wanted to make the “gay cowboy movie,” which is how it was pigeonholed before and even after its release. Five years ago, two men having sex and being in love on screen was such a big deal. Ultra-religious theater owners refused to show it; red-blooded ignoramuses fretted about its potential impact on their masculinity. Lots of conservative pundits said stupid things about it. And it famously lost Best Picture at the Academy Awards to Crash, a heavy-handed movie condemning a strain of ignorance and hatred that is more mainstream-acceptable to condemn than homophobia.

And then there were the critics who loudly proclaimed it a “love story,” as if applying that phase to gay men were a revelation in and of itself. And Brokeback Mountain certainly is a love story. The film’s marketers knew that, too:

Brokeback Mountain/Titanic

Rose and Jack; Jack and Ennis.


But “Brokeback Mountain,” a love story? Not so much. Don’t take my word for it. Take Proulx’s:

Although they were not really cowboys. . . the urban critics dubbed it a tale of two gay cowboys. No. It is a story of destructive rural homophobia.

“Destructive rural homophobia” isn’t the main theme I took away from the movie, and I doubt Lee, Ossana, and McMurtry wanted to feature it as prominently as Proulx did. My evidence lies in a small difference in the endings.

Take a look at this shot from the film’s last scene:


Ennis (Heath Ledger) gazes at the mementos of his relationship with Jack.


That image appears near the end of the story, after Ennis acquires a postcard with an image of Brokeback Mountain:

Below [the postcard] he drove a nail and on the nail he hung the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. He stepped back and looked at the ensemble through a few stinging tears.

“Jack, I swear—” he said, though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind.

The end. Or is it? No, it’s not. The story actually ends with a couple of paragraphs on Jack’s haunting appearances in Ennis’s dreams:

. . . but the can of beans with the spoon handle jotting out was there as well, in a cartoon shape and lurid colors that gave the dreams a flavor of comic obscenity. The spoon handle was the kind that could be used as a tire iron. And he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets.

There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.

There, again, we have that tire iron: the one that killed the gay rancher in Ennis’s youth, the one that Ennis believes may have killed Jack, the one that prevents Ennis from living a good life. There is your destructive rural homophobia. And I don’t mean to minimize the film’s depiction of it; it’s there, most prominently in scenes with supporting characters. But the image we leave with, the most resonant image, isn’t the tire iron: it’s those empty, entwined shirts.

Brokeback Mountain may always be the gay cowboy Titanic to some, but it is also a great film, a near-perfect adaptation, and an extraordinary coming together of all the right minds—not to mention some superb source material.

Next week: Steven Milhauser’s “Eisenheim, the Illusionist” and The Illusionist

ASF Summer Film Club 2: Return of the Club

27 Jun

Hey, guys. It’s officially summer. In Austin, that means a few things: 107-degree days, seeking refuge in Barton Springs, and the return of ASF’s Summer Film Club!

Each week, I’ll read a short story, watch its film adaptation, and discuss here what works and what doesn’t in each medium. Once again I’ll point out that I have no formal training in film, and that, although I still follow Roger Ebert on Twitter, I don’t even subscribe to Netflix anymore. So we’re in uncharted waters. Or at least I am.

I’ll be back next Friday (July 6) with the first entry in the series, on “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx and its film adaptation, Short Circuit. Just kidding. I’ll be watching Brokeback Mountain, because I thought I’d like to spend the next week crying at my desk.

Last year we covered Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Jonathan Nolan, Andre Dubus, Joyce Carol Oates, Julio Cortázar, and Raymond Carver. This year I just have a few picked out—authors include Alice Munro, James Joyce, and Steven Millhauser—so please leave suggestions in the comments.

See you soon!

Summer Film Club: Raymond Carver

14 Sep

In this weekly series, Intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.


Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) lounges on the lawn in Dan Rush's EVERYTHING MUST GO (2011).


Well, here we are. The end. Before I started this series, ASF editor Jill Meyers and I talked about what adaptations I would want to review. We both agreed that Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” and Dan Rush’s Everything Must Go fit right in. In fact, Everything Must Go is really the film that got me thinking about adaptations, as I mentioned in the footnote of my first entry, so I feel it’s fitting that it’s the focus of my last entry.

In that first entry, I may have alluded to the fact that I don’t really like Denis Johnson, whom Tobias Wolff compared to Raymond Carver. Well, here are some more controversial confessions: I don’t really like Raymond Carver. And I don’t really like Will Ferrell. (I also don’t like kittens, chocolate, or Paul Rudd. Just kidding! I love all those things, just like everyone else in the world.) But for some reason, I thought that the pairing of Carver and Ferrell might really work for me. And, in the end, it didn’t really work for me—but it sort of did.


"Why Don't You Dance?" from WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE. Raymond Carver. Knopf, 1981.

In one of my English classes as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, my professor assigned us several stories from Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral. The assignment included both “The Bath” (from WWTA) and “A Small, Good Thing” (from Cathedral), which is essentially a longer, less heavily edited version of the former. My professor pointed out a major difference in the stories: “The Bath” ends ambiguously; “A Small, Good Thing” ends more optimistically. He attributed this change to Carver’s eventually victorious battle with alcoholism, and applied it to the writer’s career in general. Where once Carver’s stories ended in bleak loneliness, in misunderstanding, they later ended in profound connection, in moments of transcendence. Or, as I called it in that class, “schmaltz.”

I don’t think it’s as easy as this: “He wrote depressing stories when he drank, and then he stopped doing both.” But I do think that on this simplified spectrum, “Why Don’t You Dance?” would fall on the bleak loneliness end, and Everything Must Go on the schmaltzy transcendent one.

Dan Rush said that the idea for Everything Must Go came when he reread Carver as an adult, and he couldn’t rid his mind of the image of a man’s bedroom on the front lawn. It is indeed an intriguing and cinematic image, but it’s also one that comes in the first sentence of a very short story—“Why Don’t You Dance?” clocks in at only 1,620 words. Obviously Rush, who adapted the screenplay himself, had to fill in some gaps, or he’d walk away with a twenty-minute film. (As it is, Everything Must Go has a pretty short running time—hardly over an hour and a half.) So where in “Why Don’t You Dance?” we see a despondent, drunk man with his belongings on the porch and later wonder, as the woman he encounters that evening wonders, why, in Everything Must Go, we know.

Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) loses his job and his wife on the same day, and due to the same problem: an unspecified (for most of the film) incident that occurred on a business trip during which he relapsed into alcoholism. His estranged wife throws all his stuff on their front lawn and changes the locks, and over the course of the film’s five days, Nick comes to terms with his new life’s circumstances with the help of a neighborhood kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace), Nick’s AA sponsor (Michael Pena), and a new (and pregnant) neighbor (Rebecca Hall).

It’s a pleasant and heartwarming—though not saccharine—journey, with several uncomfortable and touching moments along the way. I enjoyed watching it. But if I didn’t have to write this piece, I probably would have never thought about it again. Why would I need to? It leaves nothing unsaid.

“Why Don’t You Dance?,” on the other hand, leaves most things unsaid. We don’t know why the main character has arranged his bedroom on his front lawn. We don’t know where his wife is, and we don’t know if she’s coming back. We don’t know much about the young couple who stumble upon his house and assume he’s holding a yard sale. We don’t know, though we may assume we do, what the young woman is thinking when she dances with the man in his driveway and says, “You must be desperate or something.” We don’t know much of anything by the end of it, and the last two paragraphs have stuck with me since the first time I read it, about five years ago:

Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy give it to us. and all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

Haven’t we all had an ineffable experience that we’ve tried in vain to explain? Don’t we all know the unquiet desperation of trying and failing to make ourselves understood—not just to others, but to ourselves?

Well, the characters in Everything Must Go haven’t. They wade through their sea of problems and emerge dry-legged, triumphant, and holding hands. It’s a nice movie full of nice people who make mistakes and then correct them. They’re all believable, thanks in no small part to the actors who portray them. Will Ferrell, especially, is great. As an alcoholic who (spoiler alert) may or may not have assaulted a woman, he walks a fine line between honesty and likeability, and somehow he remains both honest and likable. His face is heartbreaking and familiar. And Laura Dern, queen of the adaptations, is just lovely in a very small role as an old high school acquaintance. But as a whole, the movie was (like Dern’s scene in particular), a little too neat. A little too “talked out.”

And, in the end, so am I.

Stray observations:

  • Is there a name for those precocious but innocent child characters who enlighten cynical and narrow-minded adult protagonists? Like Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but in child form. What should we call it? Seymour Glass Syndrome? (Why do I like it so much when Salinger does it and so little when anyone else does?)
  • Will Ferrell should make more dramas.
  • The story about Carver’s change in tone and style is really more interesting and complicated than I made it sound up there. For starters, check out Frank Kovarik’s piece on The Millions about Carver’s posthumously released manuscript Beginners.
  • Most importantly, I want to thank everyone for reading these blog posts. I had a great time writing them. Extra special thanks to Jill, for giving me the opportunity to do so. Now, unfortunately, summer’s over. Get back to work!
  • But if you need some cinematic distractions after work, check out these other famous films and their literary counterparts: 2001: A Space Odyssey (“The Sentinel,” Arthur C. Clark); The Swimmer (“The Swimmer,” John Cheever); Freaks (“Spurs,” Tod Robbins); Rear Window (“It Had to Be Murder,” Cornell Woolrich); The Killers (“The Killers,” Ernest Hemingway); The Last Time I Saw Paris (“Babylon Revisited,” F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Summer Film Club: Julio Cortazar

2 Sep

In this weekly series, Intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.


Thomas (David Hemmings) examines a print for evidence of a murder in BLOW-UP.


Hey, Summer Film Clubbers! September is upon us and autumn is nigh, which means, unfortunately, that my series is drawing to a close. Next week’s entry will be my last. We’ll end, appropriately enough, with Everything Must Go, Dan Rush’s 2010 adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic “Why Don’t You Dance?” This week, we’re discussing Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up, based on Julio Cortázar’s “The Devil’s Drool.” So let’s get into it!

I think I may have purchased a bowdlerized translation of “The Devil’s Drool.” I read it and reread it so carefully, yet found nary a consensually questionable orgy or bevy of interchangeable topless women. Does anyone know where I can find the dirty version?


BLOW-UP, dir. Michaelangelo Antonioni. Starring David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave. 1966.

Little joke. Let me explain: there’s a lot of nudity, models, naked models, and implied sex with uncomfortable power dynamics in Blow-Up. But we’ll get to that later. (Please resist the urge to scroll through this post just to get to the dirty parts.)

For now, suffice it to say that Blow-Up joins Secretary in the club of adaptations that take great liberty with their source material (and their female characters’ integrity, but again—later). If we render the events of each piece in the sparest possible terms—man takes photo of couple in park, subject unsuccessfully demands he hand over photo, man later realizes something sinister’s afoot in said photo—then Blow-Up is a faithful adaptation. Let’s approach this a little differently than we usually do and quickly list the straightforward plot differences in each piece.

Setting: “The Devil’s Drool” takes place in Paris; Blow-Up, in swinging Sixties London.

Characters: In “The Devil’s Drool,” the protagonist (Michel) is a professional translator and amateur photographer. In Blow-Up, the protagonist (Thomas) is a professional fashion photographer (hence the models). While Thomas interacts with a variety of models and artists in Blow-Up, Michel doesn’t interact with any other characters in the present (a problematic term, Cortázar would caution) of the story, which takes place in his head/on the page.

Plot: Michel photographs an older woman and a teenage boy struggling in a park. Initially he assumes the older woman was trying to seduce the boy, but later he becomes convinced that the woman was procuring the boy for an older gentleman waiting in a parked car. He finds himself within the photograph watching the scene unfold. Thomas photographs a younger woman and an older man canoodling in a park and later realizes a gunman was hiding in the bushes—a fact of which the woman seemed aware.

Okay. So, I’ve come to believe, over the course of the summer, that what makes an adaptation faithful to its source material is not a strict adherence to its plot points, but a general observance of its themes. And, well, Blow-Up certainly adheres to Cortázar’s many ambiguous themes that allow for about a million different interpretations. The title “The Devil’s Drool” (“Las Babas Del Diablo,” in Spanish) refers idiomatically to a thin spider thread, and the story itself is as intricately woven as a spider’s web (sorry). It concerns the interplay between imagination and paranoia, the life of a photograph, the existence of truth—I even saw one interpretation that invoked the Heisenberg Principle. If a roomful of monkeys on typewriters could produce a Shakespeare play, they could probably also produce a valid interpretation of “The Devil’s Drool.” But the theme that struck me most was the inaccuracy of language. The protagonist, a translator (like Cortázar himself), grapples daily with the question of truthful, accurate language, and, well—it’s kind of a losing battle, as evidenced by the first paragraph:

It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my you’re his our yours their faces. What the hell.


BLOW-UP AND OTHER STORIES. Julio Cortázar. Pantheon Books, 1985.

What the hell, indeed, Señor Cortázar. When I tried reading this story after a fitful night of sleep, I was momentarily concerned that a lifetime of insomnia had taken a permanent, brain damage-y toll on me. Not so. Cortázar’s convoluted, nonsensical prose underlines the absurdity of language, and his alternations between persons imply the unreliability of a narrator. Later in the story, he states the narrator’s unreliability in terms that make Nick Carraway look honest and subtle.

And Blow-Up? Well, ambiguity is certainly a theme. The titular blow-ups refer to enlarged prints of the couple’s dalliance in the woods, the graininess of which prints imply a murder (a barely discernible gun, the shadow of a body). Thomas, sans camera, encounters the body in the park at night, but without photographic evidence, does it exist? Or: if a body falls in the park and no one’s around to photograph it, is it really dead? Apparently not. When he returns the next morning, the body’s gone. His hesitant participation in a mimed tennis game at the film’s conclusion beautifully enhances the film’s themes of ambiguity and perception. If you toss an imaginary tennis ball to a couple of mimes, does it make a sound? Apparently, yes.


I don’t think that ambiguity and perception are the most prominent themes in Blow-Up. I think the most prominent themes in Blow-Up are ennui and jadedness, as evidenced by Thomas’s abhorrent treatment of women as well as his desire to photograph the corpse. I have to editorialize here: I didn’t like this movie. I understand that it’s a “good” movie, or a “great” movie, or a “masterpiece,” from a technical standpoint. But what’s to enjoy? It glorifies misogyny and forces the viewer to watch what may be a rape scene (the aforementioned consensually questionable orgy). And, okay, yes, I get that the aforementioned scene contributes to the themes of ambiguity and perception. But I think that’s a pretty weak argument to make in order to excuse the film’s rampant misogyny. Look: Thomas spends so much more time physically and emotionally manipulating women, and asserting his sexual dominance over them, than he does questioning the truth in perception. I think Blow-Up is an accurate (if chilling) depiction of hipsters in mod London, but a successful adaptation of “The Devil’s Drool”? Not so much.

Stray Observations:

  • The film’s famous montage of still photographs depicting the murder is, I admit, fantastic, and a neat homage to Cortázar’s “photo comes to life” ending.
  • Antonioni pans to the sky in the park a couple of times, recalling Cortázar’s references to clouds passing in the sky.
  • Both “The Devil’s Drool” and Blow-Up eschew typical structure—they’re meandering and plotless and compelling nonetheless.
  • Cortázar liked the remake.
  • This letter from cast member Ronan O’Casey to Roger Ebert really throws a kink into the whole “themes of ambiguity” theory.
  • A brief blog post does not have nearly enough room to do justice to these pieces. I left out so much that I’d love to talk about. Commenters, want to correct my most egregious omissions?

Summer Film Club: Joyce Carol Oates

19 Aug

In this weekly series, Intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

Laura Dern in SMOOTH TALK.

Connie (Laura Dern) sits on a porch swing in SMOOTH TALK.


In 1966, twenty-three-year-old Charles Schmid was convicted of killing three girls in the Arizona desert. Schmid, the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” caught the attention of Time, Playboy, Life—and Joyce Carol Oates, who based her 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” on Schmid’s murders.

Oates’s oft-anthologized story, first published in Epoch Magazine, tells the story of fifteen-year-old Connie’s sexual awakening…sort of. Rebellious and beautiful, Connie spends the summer before her sophomore year of high school sneaking off to a drive-in to flirt with boys. One of those boys, though, turns out to be a creepy older man with the creepy name “Arnold Friend”—and the creepy habit of stalking teenage girls. When he shows up at Connie’s house while the rest of her family is out for the day, he verbally terrorizes her until she “gives in” and leaves her house with him.

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"


Oates’s story is many things: an allegory, a coming-of-age tale, a psychological horror story. I remember reading this story in college and feeling a vague sense of déjà vu, and I wondered if I had read this story before, or if it just eerily tapped into one of my greatest fears as a teenager. Whatever your interpretation, it’s a very effective story.

One of the ways in which I think Oates succeeded especially is in establishing a sense of Connie’s isolation, thanks in part to the allegorical ambiguity of the setting and characters. Connie inhabits a nightmarish fairy tale, replete with a cruel mother, a plain but perfect sister, a spectral father, and a golden carriage Cadillac. The structure of the story enhances this somnolent sense, with several sleepy paragraphs of prose describing Connie’s daydreamy life before her final encounter with Arnold Friend. Indeed, on the afternoon that Arnold shows up at her house, Connie awakes, disoriented, from a nap:

…when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was, the back yard ran off into weeds and a fence-like line of trees and behind it the sky was perfectly blue and still. The asbestos ranch house that was now three years old startled her—it looked small. She shook her head as if to get awake.

You know how sometimes when you’re dreaming, you think you wake up, but you’ve only woken up in the dream? Everything seems almost normal, except you have this nagging thought that your cat isn’t supposed to be talking, and your house doesn’t have eighteen flights of stairs, and James Franco isn’t actually your boyfriend. That’s how the rest of the story feels: like a bad dream from which we’d like Connie to wake. As Arnold threatens and coaxes Connie out of the house, she becomes more and more disoriented: she no longer recognizes her house, and she dissociates until she feels she is watching herself open the door and leave the house.

Whereas lengthy, languid paragraphs occupy the first third of the story, Arnold Friend’s unnerving dialogue makes up the majority. Near the end, Connie tells him, “People don’t talk like that, you’re crazy.” Although Arnold doesn’t physically violate Connie (on the page, at least), his verbal assault is enough to make me cringe and want to look away. It’s incredibly disturbing, and Oates succeeded most in her fearlessness with his character.

Smooth Talk, Joyce Chopra’s 1985 adaptation of Oates’s story, succeeds largely thanks to its cast and its screenplay—though it doesn’t always go as far as I’d like it to. Laura Dern’s portrayal of Connie is subtle and endearing, and Treat Williams lends to Arnold not just a convincing creepiness but also a disturbing charm. (Mary Kay Place is also great as Connie’s ambivalent mother.)

I found the structure of the movie really interesting. At just 92 minutes, it’s on the short side, and a full two-thirds is exposition of sorts: Connie fighting with her mom; Connie and her friends at the beach, at the mall, at the drive-in. Laura Dern is so charming that I enjoyed watching all of these scenes, even if the extras and the score evoked ABC after-school-specials. I suppose it would be difficult to market a movie that’s just an hour of Treat Williams being creepy, and I like Chopra’s choice here.

Tom Cole wrote the screenplay, which takes lines verbatim from the story—notably Connie’s mother complaining about Connie’s “trashy daydreams,” a phrase I was happy he used. My biggest complaint with the script is that I don’t think Cole went as far as he should have with Arnold’s dialogue. Although Cole’s Arnold is certainly threatening, he didn’t inspire in me quite the same sense of fear and imminent danger as Oates’s Arnold did. For example, Cole modifies this pivotal line: “I’ll have my arms tight around you so you won’t need to try to get away and I’ll show you what love is like, what it does.” Um, that line alone makes me want to make sure all my doors and windows are locked (they are), even though I’ve read it a million times. In the movie, it’s the still frightening (but somewhat less so), “I’ll hold you so much and tight you won’t need to think about anything or pretend anything and you won’t even want to get away, even if you’re scared.” Similarly, he doesn’t explicitly threaten her parents.


SMOOTH TALK, dir. Joyce Chopra. Starring Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place. 1985.

I imagine the slight softening of Arnold is due to Chopra’s decision to modify the ending of Oates’s story. In Smooth Talk, the viewer sees that Connie makes it out alive, so that the movie ends up feeling like a bit of a morality play: this precocious teenager is punished for daring to explore her sexuality. I find that disturbing, especially in light of the final scenes of the movie, where Connie makes amends with her family and dances with her sister to James Taylor’s “Handy Man,” a callback to an earlier scene in the film. “You wouldn’t feel, like, defiled or anything if I touch you?” Connie asks her sister. She’s smirking, but we know she means it. “Do you still like this song?” she asks her sister a minute later as they dance. It’s a telling, honest moment that reveals the way Connie feels changed after her encounter with Arnold, but the lack of commentary with which it’s presented complicates it for me.

Joyce Carol Oates wanted nothing to do with the adaptation, but she praised it once she had seen it and even defended Chopra’s new ending. I thought it was a successful adaptation, too. Like its source material, Smooth Talk is enjoyable, disturbing, complicated, and thought-provoking—even if it does have lots of cheesy synth music.

Stray observations:

  • Charles Schmid was a gymnast, and Treat Williams does some neat little balancing beam acts on that gold Caddy of his. Not sure if those facts are intentionally related.
  • Joyce Carol Oates dedicated the story to Bob Dylan, whose song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” inspired the title.
  • Do you need a creepy Halloween costume idea? You should go as Arnold Friend. He stuffs his boots to make himself appear taller, so you’d be totally comfortable walking around all night.
  • Smooth Talk, which no one I know has ever heard of, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance the year it was released.

Summer Film Club: Andre Dubus

12 Aug

In this weekly series, Intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

In the Bedroom

IN THE BEDROOM, dir. Todd Field. Starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother. 2001.

At the 74th Academy Awards, two Best Adapted Screenplay nominees used short stories as their source material: Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, based on the 1979 short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus. Neither won, but 2001 marked the first year since 1954 that short story adaptations composed 40 percent of that category’s nominations.

Although In the Bedroom and Memento are both outstanding adaptations, they couldn’t differ more in tone or style. Content-wise, they’re surprisingly similar: murder revenge stories.

In the Bedroom and “Killings” focus on Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek in the film), a middle-aged New England couple devastated by the murder of their son Frank (Nick Stahl). When Frank is killed by Richard Strout (William Mapother), the estranged husband of Frank’s girlfriend (Marisa Tomei), Matt and Ruth try to cope but are haunted by Richard’s presence around town. Frank takes the law into his own hands: he lures Richard into the woods and shoots him.

Ah, sex, murder, and shallow graves: sounds exciting! Well, it’s not. It’s sad and slow and violent but not in a fun way. “Killings” and In the Bedroom are heartbreaking and realistic enough that they hurt to read/watch. They differ in small ways (characters’ names, ages, and occupations) and in large ones (the disintegration of Matt and Ruth’s relationship), but they succeed in much the same way: as quiet portrayals of grief and of the ways in which tragedy transforms us.

“Killings” opens in media res, at Frank Fowler’s funeral. It stays there for a couple of pages before returning to the circumstances around Frank’s death: his affair with a married woman, and her husband’s sudden homicide. The bulk of the story, however, concerns Matt’s vengeance. What’s the point of telling a straightforward story in such a meandering manner?

In the Bedroom

IN THE BEDROOM, Andre Dubus. Vintage, 2002.

“It seemed to Matt that from the time Mary Ann called weeping to tell him until now, a Saturday night in September, sitting in the car with Willis, parked beside Strout’s car, waiting for the bar to close, that he had not so much moved through life as wandered through it, his spirit like a dazed body bumping into furniture and corners.”

And so Dubus dazes us; we too wander around in the same clouded atmosphere as Matt. The story’s greatest strength is Matt’s internal monologue—which is fortunate, since we go through paragraphs upon paragraphs of Matt’s thoughts. Even when Matt is pointing a gun at Richard’s head, he’s thinking of other things. Dubus articulates Matt’s fear and despair in bare, penetrating prose:

“So he and his children had survived their childhood, and he only worried about them when he knew they were driving a long distance, and then he lost Frank in a way no father expected to lose his son, and he felt that all the fears he had borne while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea.”

And then there’s the brevity with which Dubus establishes relationships. Dubus never has to tell us, “Matt and Ruth had a generally happy marriage, but it was not without its problems, like the occasional but understandable lack of communication that results in never knowing anyone, even the love of your life, completely.” Instead, we understand their relationship perfectly with a line like this: “[Matt] felt vaguely annoyed and isolated: living with her for thirty-one years and still not knowing what she talked about with her friends.”

So how does one translate those decidedly literary strengths to film? Um, very quietly. Seriously. In the Bedroom is such a quiet movie. Mostly unscored, the movie plods along with long speechless stretches replete with the sounds of birds or lawnmowers or The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn or whatever non-human entities inhabit space with its characters. I understand that some people would call this “boring,” but it’s not boring at all. It’s tense and evocative, thanks hugely to the strength of the actors who feature so prominently in Field’s many reaction shots.

As a longtime snob proponent of source material over adaptations, I hate it when a line I loved in literature doesn’t make it to the screen intact (see Jesus’ Son). So I was pleased and impressed that In the Bedroom uses the dialogue from “Killings” verbatim. Furthermore, Field isn’t afraid to show us these characters at their most mundane, like when they’re trimming a tree or talking about acronyms. Sometimes I felt like this movie was just one handheld camera and a pair of skinny jeans away from mumblecore.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that In the Bedroom is a perfect movie. It’s not my favorite movie, or the greatest movie ever. I just can’t find much wrong with it. Field’s shots are emotionally unrelenting and beautifully framed, while the film’s muted, earthy colors evoke a poignant nostalgia. The actors really inhabit their roles, and the script follows three-act structure perfectly. It’s tense, genuinely surprising, and resonant.

Every once in a while comes a story or a movie that may not say anything new about life but illuminates it perfectly anyway. It allows a reader or a viewer to connect with other people—even if they are fictional. As quiet as these works of art often are, they’re important, because they make us both more empathetic and more understood. One more way in which literature and film differ is that while many hail Andre Dubus as one of the greatest authors of his generation, hardly anyone has heard of Todd Field. Their loss.


Stray observations:

  • Todd Field and Andre Dubus were good friends, and Dubus advised Field on the screenplay before he passed away on Field’s birthday in 1999 (sad coincidence). Field dedicated the film to Dubus wrote the preface to the posthumously released collection In the Bedroom.
  • Akiva Goldsman (winner of the 2001 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay) is a pretty prolific Hollywood screenwriter. His credits, in addition to A Beautiful Mind, include Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. I’m not saying that the 2001 Oscars were a travesty, but Shrek did beat Monsters, Inc. for Best Animated Feature, too.
  • OK, so the one thing that made me roll my eyes in the movie was that Ruth is a choir teacher. It makes for some very melodramatic moments, that’s for sure.
  • The film diverges from the story significantly in its take on Matt and Ruth’s relationship, but its tone is so faithful that it feels like the straightest adaptation I’ve seen so far.

Summer Film Club: Jonathan Nolan

5 Aug

In this weekly series, intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, reviews popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

MEMENTO and "Memento Mori"

(Left) MEMENTO, dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie Ann-Moss, Joe Pantoliano. 2001. (Right) The March 2001 issue of ESQUIRE containing Jonathan Nolan's "Memento Mori."

Yes, that Nolan. I managed to make it an entire decade without seeing the critically acclaimed cult hit that catapulted Christopher Nolan to the dizzying heights of critically acclaimed superhero franchises. I also made it through that decade without realizing that Christopher Nolan based that cult hit on a short story by his brother, Jonathan Nolan (read “Memento Mori” here).

Much like the main characters in “Memento Mori” and Memento, I dove into this assignment not knowing what to expect. You, on the other hand, probably do know what to expect—a man seeks vengeance for his wife’s rape and murder. A story as old as time itself, if “time itself” extends only to the previous ten minutes the anterograde amnesia-afflicted protagonists of “Memento Mori” and Memento can recall.

Short-term memory loss is the plot device that turns Memento from a straightforward revenge story to a—well, a straightbackward revenge story, I suppose. To mimic his protagonist’s experience, Christopher Nolan edited the story in reverse chronological order—the hook (or gimmick, depending on whose review you’re reading) that garnered so much critical attention. That time-turning tactic works well in the realm of film, but how does Jonathan Nolan depict “CRS disease” in fiction?

“I always thought the pleasure of a book was in wanting to know what happens next,” says Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), protagonist of Memento. And although I don’t agree entirely with this sentiment, I see its relevance in the context of this story.

Comparing Memento and “Memento Mori,” I felt that, in general, fiction has an intrinsic momentum that film lacks, due to the more active performance of reading. A viewer can enjoy many films (probably not Memento, though) passively, letting the action unwind before her eyes, but a reader propels herself forward through a text. I think it’s wise, then, that writer Jonathan Nolan chose to tell this story chronologically, allowing readers to discover clues along with the main character Earl, and thus maintaining the momentum “Memento Mori” requires.

Two other choices work particularly well in this story: Jonathan Nolan’s unadorned prose and the interchange of first- (or second-?) and third-person narration. Moreover, the interplay between these elements—prose and person—enhances the story as well. In the third-person sections, stark, declarative sentences disorient the reader with a lack of nuance or depth—that is, like Earl, we have only the information right in front of us, on the surface. In the first-/second-person sections, Jonathan Nolan uses the same sparse prose followed by unsettling leading questions: “They don’t think it’s right for a man in your condition to hear about those things. But you remember enough, don’t you?” We get the feeling that something sinister is lurking, and somebody knows more about it than we do.

Another aspect of the story that worked for me was the explication of the theme. Jonathan Nolan practically hands it to us on a silver platter in the last paragraph of the story (as well as in other paragraphs throughout the story), which usually irks me, but I like it here! If Earl spends so much time writing himself these notes, he probably reflects on his situation quite a bit, so these philosophical speculations aren’t out of character.

So how does Christopher Nolan get away with more or less stating the theme throughout Memento?

I’m going to attribute that to clever screenwriting. The densely packed script gives heavy-handed lines a little more leeway. (For example: “Just because there are things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world doesn’t disappear when you close your eyes.”)

The script is, of course, the main reason that Memento works so well. “You really do need a system if you’re going to make it work,” Leonard’s voice-over narration informs us in the film. And I feel the same is true of making a movie featuring two separate timelines (or three, depending on how you look at it), one of which is reversed, that meet at the climax. You’re going to need a system. (And if that system involves a lot of Polaroids and tattoos, to make it more cinematic and visually appealing, then you’ve killed two birds with one stone.)

Guy Pearce in MEMENTO

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) displays one of his handy Polaroids in MEMENTO.

It’s worth mentioning that Jonathan and Christopher Nolan worked on their projects separately but concurrently (I will be so happy when I no longer have to think about time this much), after Jonathan pitched the idea to Christopher on a road trip. I wonder if this spirit of collaboration is what makes Memento such an effective adaptation. Whereas I thought of Jesus’ Son and Secretary almost as separate entities from their source material, I felt like Memento and “Memento Mori” worked well as companion pieces to each other. Alone, they are each compelling and complete portrayals of the same story; together, they illuminate aspects of each other I might otherwise have missed. After watching the film, I began to wonder about the unreliability not just of memory, but also of narration and storytelling. So I reread “Memento Mori,” which, the second time, seemed to have more weight and complexity. I appreciated it more, and aspects that bothered me the first time—the lack of development of Earl, for example—no longer seemed quite so important. Similarly, the existential angst of “Memento Mori” lends more gravity to the whodunit noir of Memento. And both raise interesting questions about the efficacy of revenge. So go read “Memento Mori,” and then watch Memento. Then read “Memento Mori” again, and, hey, it’s probably still in the DVD player, so. . .

Stray Observations

So is it obvious that I really enjoyed this one? If I were giving grades to these adaptations, “Memento Mori”/Memento would get an A.

On the Internet there exists a deep, vast Memento rabbit hole. You can start falling into it here. Come to think of it, though, you probably did that ten years ago along with everyone else who saw Memento when it was still timely (ugh, time).

You can continue on the official Memento Web site, created by Jonathan Nolan.

I might have been able to write this entire post with quotes from the Memento script. “I always thought the pleasure of a book was in wanting to know what happens next. It’s all backwards. Memory’s unreliable.”

I didn’t discuss Memento‘s acting (which was good) or cinematography (which was great) here because the writing stood out the most.

Jonathan Nolan jokingly refers to anterograde amnesia as “CRS disease” in “Memento Mori.” Deeply confused, I spent about five minutes Googling “CRS disease,” only to discover (via a Facebook page and Urban Dictionary) that Nolan didn’t mean chronic rhinosinusitis or congenital rubella syndrome, but “can’t remember stuff.”

I feel like I could have made a dozen easy Inception jokes, but I haven’t seen Inception. Don’t worry, I’ll walk myself to movie jail.

Summer Film Club: Mary Gaitskill

22 Jul

In this weekly series, intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, reviews popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.


(Left) SECRETARY, dir. Steven Shainberg. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader. 2002. (Right) "Secretary," Mary Gaitskill. From BAD BEHAVIOR, Vintage, 1989.


This week: sexual fetishes and a Hollywood scandal!

Mary Gaitskill once described “Secretary” as “a sad story for humorous people.” “It’s actually very funny,” she told Michael Martin in an interview for “But you have to feel the pain of it before you can laugh at it.”

Indeed, “Secretary” and the movie it inspired are both about “feeling the pain.” In Gaitskill’s story, a depressed young woman named Debby begins to work as a secretary (surprise!) for a lawyer with an S/M fetish (surprise! For real). When Debby stops going to work after the lawyer “punishes” her for some typos, he sends her a letter bearing hush money and the promise of good recommendations. Class act!

I’m a huge fan of Gaitskill’s short fiction, so I’ll try to be objective rather than effusive in my assessment of why “Secretary” works: Debby’s blunt, honest, cynical (and often funny) voice. Of the first time her boss spanks her, Debby says, “The word ‘humiliation’ came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.” Debby describes her predicament with a detachment we don’t often see in fictional characters—especially female characters, and especially female characters in highly charged, provocative, sexual situations. So all of Debby’s reactions—her confusion over her own arousal, the depression that renders her inert and bedridden, the detached disgust she feels for the lawyer in the end—feel believable, compelling, and shocking in their candor.

And that’s what elevates “Secretary” beyond surface-level shock value. Yes, its subject matter is shocking: S/M, sexual harassment, depression, bribery, political scandal. But what’s more shocking is the frankness with which Gaitskill writes.

And then there’s the movie.

This all makes sense.

Just another day at the office!


Uh, what?

Gaitskill said she thought the rough cut of the movie was “the stupidest thing [she’d] ever seen.” And, well, it’s very. . .  different, to say the least! Which I’m sure you can deduce from the still above. And you can probably guess that the biggest difference is that Debby—or, actually, Lee, in the film—and the lawyer live happily ever after. And that, for me, definitely doesn’t work!

It didn’t for Gaitskill, either. They gave her story the Pretty Woman treatment.* And then there was an issue with money, which she later said was her main problem with the adaptation. But there is no mistaking the fact that director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson ended up telling a different story from the one that Gaitskill originally crafted.

Let’s cite some differences: In the film, Debby is Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and she’s just been released from a mental institution, where she was treated for engaging in deliberate self-harm. And she has a boyfriend! It’s Daniel Faraday, the cute time-travelling physicist from LOST:

Jeremy Davies as Peter in SECRETARY

The mullet is Jeremy Davies's constant.


Except in this timeline, his name is Peter (Jeremy Davies), and he works in retail. “Peter has a very stable job at JCPenney,” his mother tells Lee. “They even gave him a cell phone.”

Lee goes to work for that jerk from Pretty in Pink (James Spader) in his quirky, colorful law office:

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in SECRETARY

A different, more ordinary day at the office.


He spanks her and cures her of her self-harm habits (right), and she falls in love with him, but he feels guilty so he fires her, but then she dumps Peter on their wedding day and stages a hunger strike in the lawyer’s office until he carries her home and bathes her and they live happily ever after.

I’m being much harder on this movie than I should be. Really, I did enjoy the first hour and a half, but the preposterousness of the final fifteen minutes loses me. The first hour and a half is pretty preposterous, too, but it works for a few reasons.

Shainberg establishes this unreal, timeless atmosphere that evokes the snow globes Lee collects. We assume it’s the twenty-first century, because the hair and clothes look contemporary enough, but nobody uses computers, and people still teach classes on how to use typewriters. The colors are so vibrant and the sets are so strange that the movie feels like a fantasy, and somehow we can suspend our disbelief enough to accept that, yes, of course Mr. Gray has a plot of grass and a saddle (you’ll see) in his office. What respectable lawyer doesn’t?

Although quirk can often come across as a smug affectation in indie movies, Shainberg uses it well, with enough wit and wink to win over his audience. Take, for example, the montage that features the development of Lee and Mr. Gray’s working relationship, in which we see Lee spit her gum into Mr. Gray’s open hand, apologize to a bewildered client for her typos, and excitedly take Mr. Gray’s orders on what to eat for dinner. Gyllenhaal’s “aw, shucks” guilelessness and Spader’s shyly smoldering intensity certainly help, too.

Still, it strikes me as odd that I felt more uncomfortable watching Mr. Gray wash Lee’s hair than I felt watching him spank her in his office. That romance felt so contrived it embarrassed me.

Incidentally, Gaitskill saw the movie a second time and changed her opinion: “I actually enjoyed it! It’s not what I would have done but it’s kind of sweet. My actual character in the story, Debby, she would have loved it.”

Next week: “Memento Mori,” by Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

Stray observations:

  • Lee may have her snowlglobes, but Debby has a ceramic poodle that changes color depending on the weather.
  • For some reason, Lee really likes submerging herself in bodies of water.
  • For some reason, Steven Shainberg really likes drowning his viewer in slow motion.
  • Debby reads Cosmopolitan for advice on landing her lawyer.
  • Debby’s dinner, per Mr. Gray’s orders: “Just a scoop of creamed potatoes, with lots of butter, four peas, and as much ice cream as you’d like to eat.”
  • “Secretary” is a sad story for humorous people, and Secretary is a ____ movie for ____ people. Fill in the blanks!

*In the original script for Pretty Woman, Edward dumps Vivian, who “returns to the streets in a crack-fueled rage,” according to this article. I learned about this lost ending from Mary Gaitskill herself, when she spoke at the University of Texas a few years ago. Hollywood!

Summer Film Club: Denis Johnson

18 Jul

Welcome to the ASF Summer Film Club! In this weekly series intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, will review popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now. Note: All future ASF Summer Film Club entries will appear on Fridays.

Jesus' Son

(Left) “Emergency,” Denis Johnson. From JESUS’ SON: STORIES, Harper Perennial, 1993. (Right) JESUS’ SON, dir. Alison Maclean. Starring Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, 1999.


I’ll be honest: I don’t really like Denis Johnson.

I can see his appeal, though, which is why I wanted to start with his short story “Emergency” and Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son.* Like any other book snob, I often lapse into the kneejerk reaction of “The movie is always worse than the book” when I watch an adaptation. I thought then I’d start this series—which, I should clarify, is about how literature and film differ, and in what ways they can both succeed, and in what ways they might suffer from their relation to one another—with a case where I might like the movie better than the book. Just to give film sort of a head start.

In his reading of “Emergency” on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, author Tobias Wolff compared Johnson to another famous literary darling: “[‘Emergency’] is one of those stories, like Carver’s ‘Cathedral,’ that everyone knows.” I read each of those stories about five times in college. I think one assignment even paired them. In case you’re one of the mythical few who are unfamiliar with “Emergency” (are you a unicorn?), I’ll summarize it here: a laybout named FH and his friend, Georgie, take prescription pills during their shift in a hospital emergency room. They assist a man stabbed in the eye with a hunting knife, and when their shift is over, they drive around and have adventures involving an injured pregnant rabbit and an apocalyptic drive-in. (I should specify here that “Emergency” is only one 20-minute vignette in the middle of the film Jesus’ Son, which is based on Johnson’s entire collection of the same name.)

What works for me in “Emergency” is Johnson’s writing—not so much the plot, characters, or themes. Johnson manages to convey the surrealism of a drug trip with striking, vivid images and confused, erratic pacing, all rendered in beautiful prose. For example, when FH and Georgie stumble across the deserted but operating drive-in theater, Johnson writes:

On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine.

Until this point, the story has been unlikely, perhaps, but still grounded in reality, not downright surreal. Yet Johnson’s prose is so convincing we wonder, might FH and Georgie have stumbled upon the apocalypse?

And the depiction of that surrealism is exactly what’s working against the movie. In “Emergency” we can imagine what FH sees so vividly before we realize it’s just a drug-induced hallucination. Alison Maclean, unfortunately, has to show us that hallucination. And she does so very explicitly and faithfully, but not very creatively or cinematically.

FH's drive-in hallucination.

"The angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer. . ." Alison Maclean's interpretation of FH's drive-in theater hallucination.


No, sort of disappointingly.

Maclean’s faithfulness is another important aspect of this adaptation, one that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The screenplay, by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, and Oren Moverman, follows Johnson’s stories obsessively. The film uses so much of Johnson’s prose verbatim, as voice-over narration—which, given Johnson’s style, can sound forced and awkward, even from an actor as talented as Billy Crudup.

The screenplay also takes liberties, though, especially with its characters. The FH in film is a far more sympathetic and relatable FH than Johnson has written. Yes, in part it’s the acting: Billy Crudup’s vulnerable portrayal of FH, especially next to Jack Black’s Georgie, is downright endearing. In part it’s the changes the screenwriters made: distilling FH’s drug-addled slew of women down into one female lead, Michelle (a heartbreaking Samantha Morton). Most moviegoers are suckers for doomed love stories, right? But Cuthrell, Urrutia, and Moverman also appropriate lines from other characters (specifically Georgie, in “Emergency”) in order to make FH more palatable.

What I enjoyed about analyzing this pair is how differently each one succeeds. “Emergency” rests on the strength of Johnson’s writing, while the film Jesus’ Son is crushed by it. Jesus’ Son depends on the likeability of its lead—one element I doubt Johnson ever strove for. But both definitely succeed.

Next week: “Secretary,” by Mary Gaitskill, and its eponymous film adaptation, directed by Steven Shainburg.

Stray observations:

I said nothing in this piece of the humor in “Emergency” and Jesus’ Son. Shame on me! I think they’re both very funny in the same dark and effective way.

Speaking of funny, Denis Johnson himself has a cameo as the man with the knife in his eye.

I thought Jack Black’s Georgie was poorly written and poorly performed. I’d argue he’s the most sympathetic character in “Emergency,” but he’s a manic clown in Jesus’ Son.

The screenplay presents the film as a series of vignettes, each preceded by a title card corresponding to a story in Johnson’s collection—a pacing device that worked for me, but I’ve never been a huge proponent of straightforward three-act structure in movies.

The saturated ’70s blues and greens of Jesus’ Son work well to convey both nostalgia and surreal dreaminess.

Speaking of the cinematography: Jesus’ Son is just a beautiful movie overall.

Speaking of beautiful: young Billy Crudup looks like James Franco from certain angles.

*I actually wanted to start with Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” and Dan Rush’s Everything Must Go, but the latter’s in movie purgatory right now, fresh from its short-lived stint in theaters but not yet risen to DVD heaven.