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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: 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!