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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!

Local Folk: Reading with Owen Egerton

20 Jun

Owen Egerton, longtime friend of American Short Fiction, is on a crazy book tour. (Crazy awesome!) How so? He’s touring via train with his whole family. He’s in San Francisco tonight (June 20), presenting his Best of God show at the Balboa Theater. Go show him some love, Bay Area. He will make you laugh. More details on his tour on his website.

We conducted this interview right before the conductor shouted “all aboard!” Or whatever it is that they shout these days.

* * *

ASF: Let’s talk about The Book of Harold, just out in paperback from the wonderful Soft Skull Press. You first published this novel two years ago—how do you feel about it now? Are you feeling reinvigorated as you prepare for the second go-round of press? Excited about the book tour?

Owen: Thrilled! I’ve loved jumping back into the chapters for readings, once again engaging the issues and themes of the novel. It’s interesting returning to a book some years after writing it. It’s a window I opened then but can look through now. If I were so inclined to rewrite Harold now, it would be a different book. I’m a different writer, different person. It would not necessarily be a better book.

I take a while to write a novel, over six years on the short end. So every novel ends up being a collaboration between the man who started the work and the man who finishes it. Both me, but years apart.

The tour should be a blast. My wife, Jodi, and I are taking our two kids and taking the train from city to city up the West Coast. I get to take my family from bookstore to bookstore traveling by train? How could I not be excited? And Soft Skull is such a fun press. They’re putting the novel in front of so many new readers.

ASF:  In the book, Harold and his followers are making a holy pilgrimage to Austin. Why did you choose Austin in particular, and what role does this city play in the novel? What was it like writing about the place you live in and know so well?

Owen: When I was younger, I did my best to avoid writing about Austin. I thought it would be more creative to describe a world other than my own. But again and again, Austin crept into my books and stories, or my characters crept into Austin. I don’t subscribe to the old adage “write what you know.” But I do believe you should write about what you love. And I love Austin. Love its waterholes, coffee shops, live oaks. Love the hippies, hipsters, and hicks all waiting in the same line for barbecue. Love the front yard art and backyard concerts. Love how we keep making films, plays, songs, books. . . even if we’re hardly making a dime. I love that you can still afford to do that here. Love the lifestyle tinkerers, the food mystics, the grow-your-owns. Love the not-yet-blended-but-getting-there combination of cultures. I love what we’ve been, who we are and all is to come.I really dig this town.

ASF:  Tell us about a favorite book or short story, or something great you read recently. What impressed you or stuck with you about the work or author?

Owen: I’m reading Run with the Hunted, a Charles Bukowski Reader. The editor has arranged his stories and poems in the chronological order of his life so that the book reads as a kind of autobiography. He takes you close to some nasty scenes and grabs some true gut beauty. He describes the horrific with such simple elegance, such unassuming sentences, that the work has an electric honesty. An honestly of emotion. And his wit is hard to beat.

ASF:  What do you look for when you read a piece of fiction? What makes something resonate with you, or inspire your own writing?

Owen: The fiction that attracts me most is the product of a writer reaching past her knowledge, striving to touch something beyond herself. There are plenty of clever craftsmen writing today, and I respect them. But often those books read like well stacked piles of wood. I like the ones set ablaze. A book that burns is harder to keep in the lines, harder to summarize. I don’t need a book that has a “message” I can take away in my pocket. Save that for inspirational and political Twitters. I want a book discovering itself. A book that’s a little out of control.

ASF: Where is your favorite spot in Austin to delve into a great work of fiction?

Owen: Is there a bad spot? So many! The south shores of Barton Springs, the counter at Bouldin Creek Coffee House, the stacks at the Twin Pine Library. . . but here’s my current favorite spot both for writing and reading. The far south-east corner of the Once Over coffee shop’s back patio. I’ve spent many an hour under a sprawling oak with Bouldin Creek to my side, a near perfect coffee before me and a used paperback in my hand.

That’s the ingredients for a good day.

ASF: What are you up to around Austin these days? Tell me about what you do at the Drafthouse—Master Pancake, your “Best Of” compilations—etc. How long have you been performing stand-up?

Owen: I saw that Soft Skull described me as a stand-up. I don’t really do too much actual stand-up. But I do stand in front of people and occasionally they snicker. I’ve been doing comedy since college. Comedy has been very kind to me. it paid the bills before writing could. While working on first novel, I was living in a VW van and performing random comedy gigs to buys groceries and gas.

The “Best Of” series has been a blast. I’ll actually be doing a number of those shows in the same cities I’ll be visiting for my book tour. We take a theme–sex ed, drugs, God– and put together a slew of outrageous clips from 1930s onward. Then we invite Austin notables, experts, and celebrities to discuss the theme. Plus a local musician like Southpaw Jones to write a song for the night. It’s kind of the bastard love child of comedy, music, interviews, encyclopedic explorations, and frenetic channel surfing. I’ll be on book tour for June and July, but we’ll be doing more “Best Of”‘s starting in August.

Master Pancake is always a blast. I’ve been mocking movies with John Erler for twelve years now. I’m sure I’ll be joining him again come fall.

Local Folk: Reading with Elizabeth Crane

24 May

One of our favorite local writers, Elizabeth Crane, is about to break new ground. With her distinctive experimental style and quirky, charming voice, Crane has authored three remarkable collections of short stories—When the Messenger is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Now, she’s excited to publish her first novel We Only Know So Much (Harper Perennial) and kick off her national book tour next month. We can’t wait to see what Crane does in long form, but she says the transition wasn’t intentional. “At first I didn’t know I was writing a novel,” she told us. “It started as a short story that just sort of grew.” We Only Know So Much follows the dysfunctional Copeland family and is replete with eccentric characters and Crane’s off-beat humor. Unfortunately, we all have to wait until June to get our hands on it, so we asked Crane to recommend a good book to tide us over in the meantime.

ASF: Tell us about a favorite book or short story.

Elizabeth: I’m a big fan of Steven Millhauser. Dangerous Laughter knocked my socks off. Or maybe I should say Dangerous Laughter knocked me out and then my dog pulled my socks off. He likes to do that.

The first story “Cat ‘n’ Mouse” is definitely a favorite. It’s written as a narrative version of a cat and mouse cartoon—but what amazes me about this story is not its humor or mere cleverness in the way he captures every last detail of that type of cartoon, but in the way it ultimately transcends that genre and becomes a really beautiful, kind of haunted story about, well, an existential sort of loneliness. “The Dome” was another standout for me, and if you can find it online (I couldn’t), Alec Baldwin read it on Selected Shorts, which I highly recommend giving a listen to.

ASF: What do you look for when you read a piece of fiction? What makes something resonate and stick with you?

Elizabeth:  Hm, good question. I really like work that takes risks, whatever that might mean. Sometimes it’s a stylistic risk, or other times it’s maybe emotionally risky. And of course, if a piece of well-written, smart fiction is also funny and heartbreaking, then I’m always going to be excited. And I think I always want to read something that feels really true, even if it’s surreal in some way. Those are the things that inspire me most as a writer, the books that make me feel like they’ve captured some truth about who people are and put it there in a way that makes it feel fresh.

ASF: Where is your favorite spot in Austin to delve into a great work of fiction?

Elizabeth:  You know, my favorite reading spot is the same anywhere I live—my bed!  But I can occasionally be found reading in the hammock in the backyard too.

ASF: We heard a rumor you might be leaving us and moving to New York.

Elizabeth:  This rumor is true. I am very sad to be leaving the good friends I’ve made here. Austin has been very kind to me; as you know, the literary community is very supportive here. I’ll miss BookPeople for sure. And I’ll miss a few favorite restaurants: Counter Cafe and Eastside Cafe, and I was going to miss the Alamo Drafthouse but apparently they’re opening one in NY! My dog will miss Redbud and his neighbor dog friends.

Local Folk: Reading with Kester Smith

2 May

Craving a great spring read, but don’t have anything specific in mind? Can’t stop thinking about that book you read last year, but don’t remember the title? You shamefully SparkNoted your way through your high school reading curriculum, and now you deeply regret it? For all these problems and more, Kester Smith is your guy.

Kester is a devoted book reader and bookseller at Austin’s beloved independent literary hub, BookPeople. “I love books, and I love people,” says Kester. “I am clearly working in the right place.” Kester hosts the New & Noteworthy book club, where people who love to talk about the latest fiction get together and do just that. He also hosts The Required Reading Revisited book club, where folks can reread the books they begrudgingly skimmed for homework. Both clubs meet once a month at BookPeople. We applaud Kester’s dedication to Austin’s book-loving community, and asked him to divulge some of his personal favorites.

ASF: Tell us about a favorite book or short story.

Kester: You begin with one of the hardest questions posed to an avid reader and bookseller. It’s impossible to answer. Some of my favorite books that I’ve discovered while working at BookPeople include Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and Michael Crummey’s Galore. Some of my favorites read in book club include Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. And my top five works of fiction of all-time are The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers KGileadInfinite Jest, and The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

ASF: What do you look for when you read a piece of fiction? What makes something resonate and stick with you?

Kester: When I read a piece of fiction, I’m looking for a story that helps get to the heart of things. What’s happening? What’s the point? Who are we and why are we here? What are we about? I like the big questions and I look for stories that ask them; though a good story is only required to ask, not to answer. I want characters that are themselves and not well placed plot drivers. I want dialogue that doesn’t feel scripted. I want a story that helps me understand my own story and the stories of those around me, that helps me understand the world I’m living in and the people in it. I’m looking for timely and timeless, engaging and engaged.

It’s a tall order, I know. Each of those top five have all the qualities that I look for in a story. When I’m looking for something to read, I’m looking for what I found at the heart of each of them.

Café and reading area at BookPeople on North Lamar

ASF: Where is your favorite spot in Austin to delve into a great work of fiction?

Kester: I can read a book just about anywhere and often do. I don’t go anywhere without taking a book along. I’ll read standing in line at the DMV. Ideally though, I’m looking for a comfortable chair (I have back problems) near a nice breeze and a cold beer. I’m tempted to say that I prefer reading spots where I won’t be interrupted, except that those interruptions are often about the book I’m reading, and I like talking books just about as much as I like reading them. If you know a place with comfortable seating, cheap drinks, and folks that like to talk books, send me an address.

Local Folk: Reading with Barbara Galletly

25 Apr


Barbara Galletly is new to the Austin literary scene. Coming to us from Los Angeles and New York, where she worked for a nonprofit bookstore and a literary agency respectively, Barbara is now pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Texas. When she stumbled into Domy Books on East Cesar Chavez, she was impressed by the communal vibe and the unique selection of books, zines, and art. So she decided to get involved. “I love book clubs and bookstores, but I’d never done a book club at a bookstore,” Barbara told us. To combine two of her greatest loves, she teamed up with Domy curator and manager Russell Etchen to organize the Book Lover’s Reading Club. The next meeting will discuss Amelia Gray’s novel Threats, and the author herself will be in attendance. Be sure to check it out tomorrow, April 26, 7 pm at Domy Books!

ASF: Tell us about a favorite book or short story.

Barbara: One of the best readings I’ve attended was Rachel B. Glaser’s. She started with “The Magic Umbrella” from her collection Pee on Water (Publishing Genius Press, 2010). I still think about it, even though this was a couple of years ago. This was at Word Books in Brooklyn, one of my absolute favorite readings venues. I should add that Rachel followed Blake Butler, and that was a tough act to follow. She began and I just thought, this woman is incredibly nuts and I don’t understand what is happening, and by the end she totally had me. She’s awesome, and she designed the cover of the book.

For something new, I have to tell you about one of my absolute favorite publishers of fiction, Archipelago Books. They publish literature in translation, both contemporary and classic, and have a book coming out in May that I highly recommend.  My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard was translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett—it’s a masterful novel. To sell it, here’s just the first line: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.” I simply can’t wait for Book Two.

ASF: What do you look for when you read a piece of fiction? What makes something resonate and stick with you?

Barbara: I tend to trust certain publishers, particularly ones that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Archipelago, Dalkey Archive Press, Open Letter Press, New York Review of Books, Feminist Press, Farrar Straus & Giroux. I’m leaving tons out, which I’m sorry about.

And then, I’m sort of a weirdo.

I love books that are difficult. I am a big over-thinker when it comes to fiction, and I find perspective to be the key to a good novel, and to a good story. An interesting or challenging narrator goes a long way. For something immediate, I’m thinking about the opening scene in Forrest Gander’s As A Friend.
I really like fiction that makes me lose track of any sense of reality, that blurs the meaning of what’s true or untrue, right and wrong. A story can change the way I think, or teach me something new. To me, the best at this is W.G. Sebald. Maybe this is also why I think that translations into English are so exciting. You really do need to think about what you’re reading on multiple levels.

ASF: Where is your favorite spot in Austin to delve into a great work of fiction?

Barbara: I love to read just about anywhere, but I think my bedroom is probably the most comfortable spot. No heavy bags required.

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.

EVERYTHING MUST GO

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.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE

"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: 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?"

WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? STORIES OF YOUNG AMERICA. Joyce Carol Oates. Fawcett Publications, 1974.

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

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.

Help Send ASF to SXSW

16 Aug

Hey, there. We’re looking to make the journey down to the Austin Convention Center this coming March for the orgy of ideas (and product promotion) that is SXSW Interactive. It’s not too far of a journey, in terms of mileage: 3.9 miles from the ASF offices. But we still need your help to get there!

You see, we’ve put together a panel on fiction  (and why it  matters), and we’re hoping that folks will like our panel via the SXSW PanelPicker. Basically, the panel idea is: we’ll bring in some fresh, just-caught fiction,  and highlight the incredible moves the writers are making. . . and then get into how you can make some pretty killer moves yourself. It’s about stealing the strategies of great fiction writers. Or adapting them, if you prefer.

If we get enough love through the PanelPicker, SXSW staff may be more inclined to include our panel in SXSW programming. Would you please like our panel proposal? Just click the thumbs-up button, please. Thanks. We’ll save you a seat on the karaoke bus.

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.