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Summer Film Club: Denis Johnson

18 Jul

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

Jesus' Son

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FH's drive-in hallucination.

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


No, sort of disappointingly.

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

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

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

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

Stray observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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