Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Prologue to the Prologue: In Which I Talk to Myself:

(Note: These next three posts (a prologue to the prologue, a prologue, and a review of Adaptation) were originally written for the Filmspotting forum. On the forum once a month, those who would like to, participate in what we call "The Movie Dictator Club." Each person dictates a film to another person to watch - the dictatee must watch the film and report back with some thoughts about the film. I was assigned Adaptation for July's dictator club - I put off writing and put off writing until I finally published my write-up, two months later, in September. The prologues reflect my problems in getting started in writing - and interestingly, the film, Adaptation, dovetailed beautifully with my writer's block.)

[Kaufmann]:"To begin... To begin... How to start?
 I'm hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin.
Okay, so I need to establish the themes. 
Maybe a banana-nut. That's a good muffin."

Me: [Yes, how to begin? Hmmm, . . . hangnail, there – ooo, like that shot of the jagged skin on the finger of Kaufmann in the movie – yes, yes, there’s something about that shot that captures an essential part of the movie, I think . . . ] 

Me: [Ok, but talk about that image later maybe. Here goes:]

There’s something infinitely comforting . . .  

Me: [“infinitely”? no, that won’t work, pretentious – less is more. Ok, go again.] 

There’s something comforting about Charlie Kaufmann’s neuroses and self-doubt as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation

Me: [wait, should I say “Charlie Kaufmann” or “the Charlie Kaufmann character”? Does it matter? Yes, . . . but that question is part of what the movie’s about isn’t it? Errr, ok, get to that later. Maybe. Go.]

There’s something comforting about the self-doubt, the ordinariness, the neuroses, the paralysis of the character of Charlie Kaufmann as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation . . . 

Me: [I think Aoife’s crying. Should I go check? . . .  I’ve [i]gotta [/i]get this write-up done. This was a July assignment, Melissa, July. You slacker.]

[Kaufmann]: "If I stop putting things off, I would be happier. All I do is sit on my fat ass. If my ass wasn't fat I would be happier . . ."

Me: [Heh, both true. Go.] 

There’s something comforting about the self-doubt, the ordinariness, the neuroses, the paralysis of the character of Charlie Kaufmann as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation – he couldn’t begin, I don’t know how to begin. He was afraid of being cliché: "My life is a walking cliché."
I’m afraid of being cliché, of being boring. A little bit afraid of being so almost every time I speak, write, post something online, on the boards, on Facebook, wherever. Of course, Kaufmann - both the character and the man – has much less reason to doubt his writerly abilities and wit than I do, but he, the character at least, acts the way I feel when I’m supposed to be creating something, especially writing something . . . 

Me: [Yes, she is crying. Dang. When am I going to get back to this?] 

[6 hours later . . .]

Me: [Where was I? Errrgh. [/re-reads] 

Me: [Sigh. This is stupid. What am I trying to be, Kaufmann? Heh, very funny, just write already. Edit out the edits. Go, go, go.]

Prologue: In Which I Indulge and Write about Myself, Not the Movie

There’s something comforting about the self-doubt, the ordinariness, the neuroses, the paralysis of the character of Charlie Kaufman as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation – he couldn’t begin, I don’t know how to begin. He was afraid of being cliché, I’m afraid of being cliché, of being boring, of being a cheap imitation of someone else. A little bit afraid of being so almost every time I speak, write, even post something online, on the film forum, on Facebook, on Twitter (there’s some real paralysis there), wherever. Of course, Kaufman - both the character and the man – has less reason to doubt his writerly abilities and wit than I do, but he, the character at least, acts and thinks the way I feel and often think when I’m supposed to be creating something, especially writing something. The hesitations and falterings, the bursts of words that seem profound and perfect at first but then quickly reveal themselves to be what they are, shallow, pretentious, imitative, and stupid. On the forum I can’t compete with the quick, omniscient wit of a member like pixote or the dry, confidence of an sdedalus (long-time forum member) or the fluid, wonderful charm of a worm@work (another long-time forum member) or any others of all the amazing Filmspotters. And I guess I don’t want to, compete with them, that is. I’m quite happy to admire. Mostly, it bothers me that I can’t compete with myself, my best work - hmmm, the stuff I wrote in grad school, I guess that would be? A very long time ago. Where is it now, anyway? Moldering away somewhere in a box in our garage? So I’m haunted by that old stuff, paralyzed in trying to write new stuff ‘cause it’ll never be as good or interesting or original. (If it ever was.) And yet, on I go.  I will force myself to write about this film, Adaptation, because I loved it, because I love films in general and love to think about films – and because writing forces me to think more deeply than I would otherwise. I say that to my writing students, and I believe it. I believe with E. M. Forster that “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.” So I’d better try to see what I say about this thing. Here goes: (see next post)

Adaptation (Spike Jones, 2002)


Adaptation: In Which There Either Is or Isn’t

Why am I here? How did I get here?
Adaptation is now the last in the line of Kaufman films I’ve seen. I suppose I shouldn’t call them “Kaufman films” – they’re Gondry/Kaufman, Jonze/Kaufman, and only one Kaufman/Kaufman – but the themes and ideas are so similar in all four films, it’s difficult for me to focus on the directors over Kaufman’s screenplays. And with the exception of Eternal Sunshine, which I first saw some years ago, I’ve seen Synecdoche, Malkovich, and Adaptation in pretty quick succession, in that order, relatively recently. So in some ways, it may be difficult for me to stop the urge to trace the similar threads in all the films as I try to write about just Adaptation here, but I’ll indulge just a little here and there. The images and quote above is part of one thread that runs through all the films (though maybe more obliquely in Eternal Sunshine), I think - those often asked, so very human questions coupled with the main character’s sense (but also the side characters’) of being out of place, uncomfortable in, and out of sync with his own body and mind. We’re “All trapped in our own bodies, in moments in history,” he writes – he feels trapped rather than at home. After the brilliant opening voiceover by Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman (the film had me, absolutely, from those opening moments), highlighting the character’s discomfort and frustration with his own body and mind -

- Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. . . . Fat ass. I should start jogging again. Five miles a day. Really do it this time. Maybe rock climbing. I need to turn my life around. What do I need to do? I need to fall in love. . . . Why should I be made to feel I have to apologize for my existence? Maybe it's my brain chemistry. Maybe that's what's wrong with me. Bad chemistry. All my problems and anxiety can be reduced to a chemical imbalance or some kind of misfiring synapses. I need to get help for that. But I'll still be ugly though. Nothing's gonna change that – 

- we move fairly quickly to the set of Being John Malkvovich, where Charlie feels out-of-place and uncomfortable though it’s one place of all places he should probably feel most comfortable, in a set built to a design of, essentially, his very own. If my sympathies weren’t with Charlie, the character, that is, in the voiceover, they certainly are now in this scene in the beginning:

And then later in the film on the same set, Charlie attempts to be friendly, confident, and nonchalant,

but is effectively rebuffed by the blank looks from Cusack and Keener and by his own insecurities surging beneath the surface.

So painful and absolutely identifiable even from the opening moments. Doesn’t matter if I’m not a famous screenwriter, I know all too well those same humiliating kinds of moments. In places, with people in/with which I ought to feel at home, I still say to myself, “Be confident, be yourself, be friendly” – then, ha! Internal mortification and misery with myself. My only desire is to get away, get away, get away:

And so the film has begun. With Charlie feeling alone and on the outside. And when the film turns in, and turns in, and, wonderfully, turns in again on itself so that I don’t know what is real world and what is film world, who is character and who is real person, what is fiction or fantasy and what is reality, Charlie, as that utterly sympathetic character, remains the core of the film experience. From the very beginning, with the words “screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufmann,” I know, because there is no Donald Kaufman, that I am entering a world where classic conventions are being overturned – those conventions that direct me as a viewer as to how and when I should suspend my disbelief are upended. The boundaries aren’t the same boundaries anymore if I can’t take even the credits at face value. And yet still, this Charlie Kaufman character, played by Cage, is a steady emotional core – I’m on the journey with him. Really with him.

The film constantly draws attention to itself as a film, as a thing that is, or once was, a process of creation – a few recurring phrases spoken by different characters at different times come to mind at once: 
“Laroche is a fun character” and “Who’s going to play me?” 

The Laroche line demonstrates that real people are made into “characters” in the film (and in films in general), made smaller – caricatured – made larger – made into something that may or may not reflect the real person at all. 
The “who’s going to play me line” reflects something of the same thing, and more. It draws attention to Meryl Streep playing Susan Orlean, Chris Cooper as John Laroche, Brian Cox as Robert McKee, and, of course, Nicholas Cage as Charlie . . . and Donald. 

And in Donald’s presence throughout, I am kept, as a viewer, on unsure footing, in a state of unease about the boundaries of the film. Streep and Cooper are playing just one real life person each. Cage is playing one real life person and one fictional person – what does it mean? Does Donald represent something? Maybe he, with Charlie the twin brother, represents the two real halves of Charlie Kaufman the real person in some way? Is Donald even real in the world of the film, or is he in the film maybe a figment of Charlie’s neurotic imagination? A split personality maybe? When Charlie calls home at the end of the film, at the scene of the accident, he says only, “Mom?” And she doesn’t say, “Is this Charlie or Donald?” She assumes it’s Charlie. So is there no real Donald? Was Donald’s screenplay actually Charlie’s? The film leaves those questions essentially unanswered, and ultimately, I didn’t really care whether I knew the answers or not - though I like asking them anyway. Even if the questions are unanswered, both Charlie and Donald, whether one person or two, are absolutely sympathetic – the one insecure and neurotic and probably brilliant as an artist, the other confident and charming and probably fairly generic as an artist. 

The interplay between Charlie and Donald is some of my favorite stuff in the film. Charlie both winces at Donald’s attempts at screenwriting, a screenplay rife with Hollywood clichés and happy mediocrity, and looks on enviously at the happiness and freedom Donald finds in his writing and in his life. 
The contrast between the two men is wonderful: Charlie, a successful screenwriter, awkward socially, unhappy and tortured by paralysis, brought on by insecurities, insecurities related both to his writing and to his relationships with women; 

Donald, unsuccessful from a career-related perspective, but charming socially - moving at ease on the Being John Malkovich set and apparently unselfconsciously befriending Catherine Keener as well as becoming involved with Caroline, the make-up girl – he is happy and secure in himself as a writer of typical Hollywood fare (even though he cheerily bows to Charlie’s genius) and in his relationships with women. 
Donald is, perhaps(?), the kind of person I think most of us want to be; Charlie is, perhaps, the person we most often are(?). 

Another theme of the movie that runs throughout all the Kaufman movies I’ve seen is the theme of what I’ll perhaps call solipsism, and, ultimately, an awareness of that solipsism (Charlie identifies his own screenplay as solipsistic) and the attempt to deal with it. This solipsism and, especially, the awareness of it, is most exemplified in Charlie, but there’s a telling scene featuring Streep as Susan Orlean and Cooper as John Laroche that beautifully captures the idea, too:
Orlean is riding with Laroche in his van, ostensibly interviewing him, notebook in hand. Instead of writing down Laroche’s words, Orlean writes about her own reactions to what she is experiencing: Laroche says one thing, and Orlean writes down something else – her own interpretation of and thoughts about Laroche. 
She can’t, at this point in the film (or ever perhaps?), really see or care much about anyone but herself. It’s much easier to say, “Laroche is a fun character” and leave it at that – though she seems uncomfortable with that particular designation by others - than to truly engage with him as a real person. Her written words are things that keep Laroche contained, keep him in that purely professional space, keep him away from her personally.

Charlie does the same thing – he is absorbed in himself, and his written words are things that contain, encapsulate others - on a much larger scale. His task as a screenwriter is to adapt a screenplay from Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief. He wants to write about orchids or even about Orlean, but his repeated attempts fail, and he finds that instead of writing about something else or someone else in a real way, 
“I’ve written myself into my screenplay. It’s narcissitic, solipsistic. . . . Because I’m fat and I suck.” 

Instead of writing a screenplay about a real other, he’s found he cannot write about anything except himself. He spends hours dreaming about who Orleans is, and he creates images of her for himself, relative to himself: 

so that when he has the opportunity to meet her, he simply cannot go through with it:
 The very idea of getting outside his own head is terrifying even though he knows he should, and he’s weighed down by the guilt and failure of not really engaging with others.

There is a longing in the film, for all the characters, I think, to somehow get outside of their own heads and bodies and be truly connected with someone else or with something else – to find a way to be passionate about someone or something outside of themselves. There is the sense that the three most central characters – Charlie, Orlean, and Laroche – want to find a way to get away from themselves – the selves they are so tired of - but also to, perhaps, find themselves more truly, by being in a real relationship with something or someone outside of themselves. The question of the movie is, in part, whether that relationship is possible. They are, all three, lonely characters. Donald is the only character in the film – one that has no real life counter-part – who knows who he is and is happy with himself but is not obsessed with himself either; he has easy, happy relationships with others. 

Orlean is alone even in her marriage:

Laroche is alone, having killed his mother and being left by his wife:

Charlie is alone, trying to find empty comfort in his sexual fantasies – born of his own imaginings, not out of real relationship. 

He murmurs under his breath at one point when he is in the room with Donald, “You and I share the same DNA. Is there anything more lonely than that?” 

Charlie writes, “It is the journey of evolution, adaptation, the journey we all take, the journey that unites each and every one of us. Darwin writes that we all come from the very first single cell organism. Yet here I am, and there’s Laroche, and there’s Orlean, and there’s the ghost orchid.” 
And so there is the sense that all living things are united even while there is a terrible loneliness. And with the loneliness, while there should be adaptation, change, survival, there is only this heartache and this sense of standing still, this paralysis, so that the characters want to go back, not forward, and start over:
Orlean, with the dead or dying Laroche in her arms says, 
“It’s over. Everything’s over. I want my life back. . . . . I want to be a baby again. I want to be new.”

Part of the question of the film whether adaptation is really taking place at all- 
Charlie remains stuck in his writing – his failed adaptation – until Donald takes over. But then the question is, is what the film becomes something new or merely more of the same? For it does become, in the last 30 minutes, something that follows all the clichés of a Hollywood genre – 
with drugs,

a kidnapping and guns, 

a chase,

a violent death 

or two, 

the central character who has an epiphany about himself, 

the central character who finds love. 

Charlie’s screenplay, the film itself ends by following McKee’s 10 commandments after all
. . . with a few small exceptions. 

But in the end, as we see Charlie, happy at last, and saying, “I know how to finish the script now,” I come back to the same kind of question about whether Charlie is a Charlie with a split personality or Charlie is just Charlie who has a twin brother named Donald, because here’s the thing: I don’t think I really care and I don’t think the movie wants me to care whether Kaufman has succeeded in truly adapting, in changing, in producing something brand new and in being something new. 
What matters, I think, are two things:
Charlie’s made a connection – one that feels real – with someone who loves him
And he’s succeeded in creating something that is whole, that is complete, “conclusive,” that feels right, and he can say, “I like this. This is good.” 

He knows it: he is a creator of some thing, and it is good. 

I think it’s pretty good, too. But I don’t know if that really matters.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995)


I had seen this film before but only once and at least 12 years ago. The impact of the film then was pretty devastating – the scene when Matthew Poncelet is executed, intercut as it is with scenes of the Walter and Hope killings – has haunted me all these years, and I admit I felt some trepidation in revisiting it now; I wasn’t sure I wanted those images refreshed in my mind. I was curious, however, to see if my memory would match a renewed viewing of the film. I remember thinking then that one thing I most appreciated about the film was that though it was what we might call an issue-driven film, I didn’t feel pushed or manipulated towards one conclusion or the other. I very much dislike issue films – I hate being preached to and mostly, I hate the fact the issue films often overwhelm the story and the characters.

This film though, absolutely, holds up; the characters and the story are vivid and central, and while it is a film about capital punishment, while it does push the idea that the use of capital punishment seems mostly to be driven by politicians who want to be re-elected, while it does push the idea that capital punishment is meted out only to those who can’t afford high-powered lawyers so that the poor are at a disadvantage, ultimately, the film raises a question or questions (namely, I think, “if a murderer is a human being, is it just or satisfying to take that human’s life?”) that it doesn’t presume to answer in an absolute way.

Matthew Poncelet, played brilliantly by Sean Penn (and I’m not really a big Penn fan), is not presented as merely an innocent from a disadvantaged background who has been taken advantage of by the system– yes, he came from a poor family, yes, he was mostly without a loving father, but the film doesn’t really offer those things as a justification or even reason for his crime. It doesn’t give a reason, in fact, for his crime, and as Sister Helen Prejean (played, also humanely and delicately, by Susan Sarandon) discovers, Poncelet gives us and her very little to love in himself (though she is determined to do so because of her conviction that he is a human being who can be loved, who can be redeemed). He spews racism and misogyny; he is callous, it seems, to the suffering of the victims’ families (even in the end when he apologizes to the families, it’s not clear what his motivations are – is he truly sorry or is he just afraid of death?). He is, truly, repellent, and the film highlights rather than hides from this fact. I still have the image in my mind of Poncelet’s heavy, hooded eyelids,
and I have to shudder.

The film also faces, head-on, the grief and devastation of Walter and Hope’s respective parents. The structure of the film works wonderfully in this respect as the first part of the story dwells only with Poncelet and Sister Helen, the development of their relationship, and then Sister Helen is brought up short when the parents ask her why she has not bothered to hear their side of the story. The scenes in which she visits the parents, sees pictures of the young Walter and young Hope, hears about their life hopes and dreams, and sees the emptiness of the grief-stricken homes are absolutely moving, and the anger of the parents is completely sympathetic, never heavy-handed. The film will not/does not excuse or justify the murders.

The scene of Poncelet’s execution, too, is powerful and beautifully done, if horrifying, on several levels: Poncelet, at this point, has become a human being for us – a human being who has committed a horrifying crime, but still a human being, not a monster, (a term for Poncelet used throughout the film by the parents and by politicians – a term which helps, the film implies, to justify his execution), a frightened human being who has, just moments before, shown us his love for his family (there’s a beautiful scene in which Poncelet spends his last hours with his mother and brothers – they don’t really know what to say to each other, but they clearly love each other) and shown us the tears and emotion and fear he has kept from seeing until now. The execution scene, though, does not allow us to feel only sympathy for Poncelet – as I said earlier, it’s intercut with images of the murders of Walter and Hope, murders we have not seen in full until now, and as Poncelet dies, ghostly reflections of Walter and Hope shimmer on the glass which the separates the execution room from the viewing room, where the parents sit, hoping for some kind of relief from their burden.

The film does, ultimately, come down on the side of anti-capital punishment – Poncelet’s death is, again, not the death of a monster but of human being and we see that the parents do not really get any relief from Poncelet’s execution. Walter’s father’s struggle, in particular, speaks to this when at the end, we see him watching from the side at Poncelet’s funeral and speaking with Sister Helen – still longing for some kind of resolution, still angry, but not knowing how to find peace: “I don’t know why I’m here,” he says. And we see that the grief of the parents has not been lessened but grief generally has only increased as a new grief is given to another set of human beings: Poncelet’s family – his brothers and his mother.

In sum, I have to say that this was still a difficult film to watch – but it’s difficult for good reasons – I didn’t feel I was told what to think and I felt the reality of each of the characters, so well-acted, and their respective struggles.