When I lived in Washington, DC, I remember there being a slew of excitement in the local newspapers and in local bookstores when a book like Primary Colors came out. Local interest is a big seller in books, especially when there’s scandal involved. Here in Los Angeles this means that books about Hollywood get top billing, and there are lots of them on the local bestseller lists at any given time. They come in a few different flavors. There’s the now-we-can-finally-make-all-those-juicy-stories-public, recent-history-of-Hollywood books. These books come out a generation or so after the action depicted in the book takes place. The main players have either died or they no longer wield any power so their stories are fair game for the reading public. Connie Bruck’s biography of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, When Hollywood Had a King and A. Scott Berg’s biography of Katherine Hepburn, Kate Remembered are two recent examples. Then there’s the down-in-the-trenches, you-have-to-be-there-to-really-get-it, borderline-inside-joke, behind-the-scenes-entertainment-industry-workplace-dramas. Take David Rensin’s book The Mailroom, which, as far as I can tell, you would only want to read for one of two reasons. You once worked in Hollywood mailroom and you want to reminisce about those high-energy, low-pay days back before you became a high-powered agent, or you desperately want to become a high-powered agent and you want to read up about what it’s like in the mailroom, your first step on the road to glitz and glamour. Finally there is the true story thinly disguised as fiction like producer Robert Cort’s recent novel, Action!. I got to thinking about all of this Hollywood literature because of a recent review by Caryn James in the New York Times that assesses the latest crop of Hollywood lit. (LINK). Wading through big-selling tell-alls like Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Joe Eszterhas’ Hollywood Animal and all the rest, she finds a novel that transcends the Hollywood genre in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters and also mentions that when it comes to books about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West is “unsurpassed.”
Bad movies, like all bad art, have an important job to do. Without them we wouldn’t be able to identify, appreciate, and differentiate the great, the good, and the merely passable. It’s not that bad is the new good. It’s that bad is vital and timeless because without it there could be no good.
And make no mistake about it, The Canyons, the new movie directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis, and starring Lindsay Lohan, is very bad. You sense this from the first frames when, to droning synthesizer moans, the credits play over washed-out still photos of abandoned movie theaters. Bummer! People have stopped going out to see movies!
Says who? Says Paul Schrader. In an interview with the Tribeca Film Festival, the writer of some classic movies (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and the director of some pedigreed dogs (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper) explained that this credit sequence was his way of lamenting the fact that technology is killing the communal experience of going to a theater to sit in the dark with strangers and watch large pictures move on a screen. “The two-hour format is under siege,” Schrader said. “But the whole concept of visual entertainment is expanding… This myth that people will always want to go out to the movies, they’ll always want a communal experience – I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.”
This sounds like those doomsayers who worried that television was going to kill the movies half a century ago, but whatever. The Canyons opens with a long, rudderless scene in a restaurant where we meet the main characters, a reptilian crew who are all involved in the making of some kind of B movie. The king lizard on this reptile farm is Christian, played by James Deen (get it?), a veteran of some 4,000 porn movies but a newcomer to a serious dramatic role. It shows. Deen has a hard time giving a convincing line reading, and yet after a while I started to see him as an inspired casting choice. Christian is a trust fund kid (he refers to his father as “The Asshole”) and he wears his sense of entitlement effortlessly and convincingly, on his face and in his body language, in his car and his clothes and his promiscuous sex life and, especially, in his preposterous house perched above the Pacific. He’s a character only Bret Easton Ellis could love.
His girlfriend is Tara (Lohan), who looks puffy and wears Kabuki eye makeup and sounds like she’s back on the Xanax. As a pampered party girl who doesn’t do much of anything but have sex, drink, and go to the gym, Lohan is another inspired casting choice. It’s impossible to separate her tabloid meltdowns from what’s on the screen here, and in an unsettling way, it works. Christian and Tara are celebrating the fact that Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a pretty-boy hick just off the bus from Michigan, has won the lead role in Christian’s new movie, with a boost from Tara. Ryan’s girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks) is Christian’s assistant. Neither Christian nor Gina is aware that Ryan and Tara are having an affair. Welcome to the reptile farm.
Throughout this scene, Christian and Tara gaze into their smartphones as if they’ve been hypnotized by the things. Eventually we learn why: Christian likes to take videos of the hookups he and Tara make with a revolving cast of men and women. Who needs movie theaters when you can make porno in the comfort of your own home?
And that’s pretty much what The Canyons is about. It seems to want to join the venerable company of movies about the making of movies, from Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive, The Player, and Hugo. But there isn’t any actual movie-making in this movie. Instead, these people do drugs, they do lunch, they do each other. They drive around and walk through malls and shop. The sex scenes are graphic without being even slightly erotic, which could be the whole point. The dialogue is often dreadful (“Nobody has a private life anymore” and “Who’s really happy?” and this line of inspired sexual foreplay: “Get to work. Put it in your fucking mouth”). In the end it’s hard to care about any of these people, with the possible exception of Tara because Lohan, our distaff Charlie Sheen, brings a raspy vulnerability to the part. Again, that might be the whole point. After all, we’re deep in Bret Easton Ellis country, southern California zip code. Which means there will be sex and there will be blood and anything goes and nothing matters.
Much has been written about how Schrader made this movie on the cheap after raising $170,000 on Kickstarter. His goal was to get out from under the thumb of studio suits. As someone who has written magazine articles that got carved up by committees of editors, I can appreciate Schrader’s yearning for creative control. But if this mess is what creative control produces, I say bring back the suits.
On paper, the pairing of Schrader and Ellis looks like a natural. Both have had long, if uneven, careers working society’s margins, exploring the lives of misfits, the privileged, the kinky, the benumbed. I’ve long admired Ellis for having the courage to create mercilessly repellent characters, especially given today’s tyranny of likability. I think the anomie-soaked Less Than Zero is his best book. But he has given up novel writing in favor of screenwriting, a sensible career move given the way moving images continue to overwhelm and marginalize the writing of serious fiction in America. Based on what’s on the screen here, though, maybe he should consider returning to his fictional roots. I haven’t read The Canyons script, but I saw what’s on the screen. At one point Christian, who is about as deep as a mud puddle, offers this bit of gravitas: “We’re all just actors.” And when Tara takes control of a four-way sex scene, Christian moans to his shrink the next morning, “I felt objectified.” Everyone in the theater burst out laughing.
Ellis was unhappy with the finished product. “The film is so languorous,” he told the New York Times. “It’s an hour 30, and it seems like it’s three hours long. I saw this as a pranky noirish thriller, but Schrader just turned it into, well, a Schrader film.”
Indeed he did. When this Schrader film’s final scene ended, everyone in the theater burst out laughing again. This was not amused or delighted laughter. It was derisive, and it indicates just how very bad this movie is, how far apart its intention is from its achieved effect. Which is why it is such an excellent misadventure, and very much worth seeing.
From the New York Times:A grandfatherly figure, his bearded face wrinkled into a smile, peers down from billboards around town. It is surprise enough that the man is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the once-exiled writer, Nobel Prize winner and, of late, octogenarian scold. It is even more so that the billboards advertise his adaptation – broadcast on state television, no less – of one of his fiercely anti-Soviet novels, The First Circle.While the article goes on to say that Solzhenitsyn is not being embraced by all, I think this is an interesting example of a melding of literature and media to attempt to deal with history – rather like “Roots” the miniseries here in the US.Another thought: In the comments of this post, Pete and I had a little back and forth about how, in light of “Brokeback Mountain,” it would seem that the short story is more sensibly adapted to film than the novel in that novels so often have to be pared down considerably to fit into two hours of screen time. It follows, then, that the mini-series is much more suitable for the novel. Considering how many literary novels get slashed in film adaptations, I’d love to see a resurgence of the mini-series as the preferred format for novels. (Bearing in mind of course that the PBS’ recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House proves that the form isn’t dead here.) And with novels like The Corrections (IMDb) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb) in the Hollywood pipeline, I’d love to see them in their full splendor in a longer format.
Hollywood is no place for nonsense. That’s presumably why Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Disney’s 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland, features organizing principles absent from Lewis Carroll’s books: Alice’s search for a “chronometer” — a time travel device that’s also a pacemaker for Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, with mutton chops, German accent, and mustache) — paired with a search for the missing family of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, eyes painted yellow like a gecko).
For the story to make sense, director James Bobin needed a proper quest with proper villains attached; most of all, he needed a linear story that unfolds in time. But time is almost totally meaningless in Carroll’s Wonderland. On the contrary, a timeless, dreamy indolence prevails. In Carroll’s books, there isn’t any story in the conservative Hollywood sense, and there’s certainly no systematic antagonist to satisfy a Hollywood film editor.
The only villain in Carroll’s Wonderland is overzealous conscience, and the means available to combat it are wholly stylistic, a unique brand of literary anarchy that owes much to the repressive Victorian era: Carroll was born in the teeth of the Evangelical religious revival that defined it. As Josef Altholz writes, “The most important thing to remember about religion in Victorian England is that there was an awful lot of it.” Threatened by the advance of science and secularism in the 18th century, clergymen of the 19th fought to defend the old moral order by clamping down firmly on new ideas. Lewis Carroll’s father was a reverend and archdeacon in this reactionary Evangelical movement, which also conscripted Carroll himself. Biographer Derek Hudson writes that “it is beyond dispute that Lewis Carroll modeled his outward character largely on his authoritarian father.” Carroll was ordained a clergyman like his father and his colleagues in mathematics at Oxford. But this proper “outward character” had a rebellious counterpart in an inner character that authored puckish, nonsensical books.
Verbal humor was from childhood Carroll’s favored means of breaking rules. When he was 13, he wrote a satirical poem called “Rules and Regulations” and another called “My Fairy.” His “fairy” was an inner voice of conscience whose basic message was You mustn’t…do anything. This was the beginning of Carroll’s career undermining authority figures by impersonating their voices, a strategy that would culminate in hilarious creations like the King and Queen of Hearts, the Duchess, and the Mock Turtle. Their lunacy derives not so much from disregard for rules as from rigid observation of rules that don’t make any sense. The system of Wonderland runs on madness and everybody living there abides by it. Thus the Cheshire Cat judiciously assures Alice that she needn’t bother avoiding mad people in Wonderland. “Oh, you can’t help that,” he says, “we’re all mad here.”
Consider how the Duchess, depicted by 19th-century illustrator John Tenniel as a man in a squared Elizabethan headdress, nurses her baby in a kitchen full of pepper. “I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes,” she sings. And then this:
‘Here! You may nurse it a bit, if you like!’ the Duchess said to Alice, flinging the baby at her as she spoke. ‘I must go and get ready to play croquet with the Queen,’ and she hurried out of the room. The cook threw a frying-pan after her as she went, but it just missed her.
It’s telling that the insane Duchess’s favorite word, as Carroll later observes, is “moral.” It is her devotion to a crooked dogma that makes her seem unhinged: an infant is not allowed to sneeze; a game of croquet outweighs the baby’s needs. Invitations to the Queen’s officious game of croquet, meanwhile, arrive in large wax-sealed letters, whence footmen read them aloud. To make all this ceremony even more preposterous, the game is ultimately played with flamingoes and hedgehogs instead of mallets and balls. The courtiers’ fastidious efforts at croquet quickly bring about nothing but chaos as the animate balls, mallets, and wickets wander off. The game is mad, not the players.
Sigmund Freud said that good jokes free us from the prohibitions of reserved, polite society, and Carroll sets us all free: authority figures so corrupt and ridiculous can’t enforce their prohibitions. The Queen of Hearts, Carroll says, has “only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small” — and that is to cry, “Off with his head!” She and the King, who eventually serves as the most maddening trial judge in all literature, are a perfect picture of the excess and irrationality of a neurotic conscience. Alice accordingly rejects their corrupt judgments; when the Queen hysterically demands Alice’s head, Alice silences her with this assessment of her moral code: “Nonsense!”
The Cheshire Cat is one of the few characters who seems in on the joke of Wonderland. So is the Gryphon, who doesn’t fear “that savage Queen.” In fact, he says, she’s “fun.” “It’s all her fancy, that,” says the Gryphon in his candid patois. “They never executes nobody, you know.” The Gryphon pronounces a similar verdict on his companion, the sorrowful Mock Turtle, whose name derives from a Victorian dish called “mock turtle soup.” “It’s all his fancy, that,” says the Gryphon. “He hasn’t got no sorrow, you know.” In Wonderland, sorrow is just another preposterous rule. Carroll illustrates this point when Alice asks the source of the Mock Turtle’s woe and receives this sniffling and incomplete explanation: “Once, I was a real Turtle.” His sorrow derives, it seems, from an affectation, a “mock sorrow” to which he feels unaccountably obliged. But the reader recognizes instantly the absurdity of this obligation. We have as little to fear from mock sorrow as we do from the Queen’s mock executions.
Throughout the books, it’s Alice who is the principal skeptic of Wonderland’s regulations and the spurious sorrow, guilt, and fear they entrain. By appointing a child the cynosure of wisdom in his books, Carroll broke with the standard approach to children’s literature in Victorian times. Victorian children’s literature treated children as eminently corruptible and sought to provide them with stern moral instruction. Carroll used Alice like a mini-Friedrich Nietzsche to do the opposite — to critique the bad morals of adults — and as a sort of straight man in a comic routine. She points out absurdity so that the reader can not only appreciate its latent social commentary, but enjoy it, revel in it, laugh at it. Nonsense is a relief to the child from the bullying strictures of reality, but it’s perhaps an even bigger relief to adults, who suffer even more of reality’s insults and constraints, and who have lost the childhood method of defying reality through nonsense.
Lewis Carroll, however, seemed to have recovered the pleasurable nonsense available to children by retaining in himself the ability to be a child. As is well-known, Carroll composed the earliest version of the Alice stories to entertain a real little girl, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, daughter of a lexicographer of ancient Greek at Oxford. His unorthodox friendships with Alice and other little girls have led some scholars to call him a pedophile; the intensity of Carroll’s interest in the Liddell girls may indeed have precipitated the break with the Liddell family that eventually ensued. Regardless of the ultimate propriety of these relationships, Carroll’s urge and ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is inseparable from his artistic vision. Among the many rules that Wonderland warps to the breaking point is that which divides big and small, adult and child. When Alice literally grows and shrinks in Wonderland, she seems to illustrate Carroll’s wish, and his corresponding ability, to toggle between child and adult by an act of mental flexion or extension. Age, like time, does not exist in Wonderland.
Carroll’s personal interest in the world of childhood, his professional interest in symbolic logic, and his rebellion against over-finicky rules all came together in nonsense verse like “Jabberwocky,” which famously begins, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Seth Lerer writes, “[T]he idea of nonsense as a force of the imagination, of nonsense as a challenge to the logic of adulthood and the laws of civil life — this was a new idea in Victorian England. The masters of that nonsense were, of course, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.” Carroll’s nonsense has indeed been influential and long-lived; it gave English the portmanteau word “chortle” and inspired The Beatles’s famous song “I Am the Walrus.” John Lennon told the BBC that his 1967 nonsense song refers to “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. A century after Carroll made war on the Victorians, Lennon channeled his nonsensical idol to continue the very same culture war, to relieve us of our mock sorrows.
It is this joyous relief and freedom that resounds throughout Wonderland. Adults continue to return to Lewis Carroll in order to retrieve what Freud called “the lost laughter of childhood.” Unlike J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, or A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, Lewis Carroll grants no asylum to wistful acknowledgements that childhood must come to an end. The lost laughter of childhood needn’t be lost forever, he seems to say. Whether Hollywood, with all its starched conventions and obligations to the Almighty Dollar, can ever retrieve the lost laughter as well as Carroll did is an open question. The Alice movie currently in theaters now doesn’t really aim to. It peddles instead a familiar spectacle, manipulating the audience’s attention, which suited my kids just fine. This grown-up, though, finds more sense in Carroll’s nonsense. Maybe that’s why Carroll’s books are still in print. Nothing funnier has ever been written.
Each week, my wife and I sit down to watch the most recent episode of Showtime’s The Affair — a somewhat queasy activity for any married couple. The series, now in its second season, traces the destruction caused by a husband’s lust — which ultimately leads him to abandon his wife and four children for an unstable seafood-shack waitress.
In January, the show won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and Ruth Wilson, who plays Alison, the damaged mistress, won the award for Best Actress. It’s difficult to argue with either of those choices. The Affair is an extremely thoughtful, well-crafted show, with a Rashomon framing device that is both effective and unsettling. Its cast — not only Wilson, but Dominic West, as Noah, the unfaithful husband, and Maura Tierney, as Helen, his betrayed wife — all burn convincingly. It’s not particularly entertaining, but the level of commitment on display is indisputable.
Most of the criticism of The Affair has to do with its pacing: compared to shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, The Affair moves glacially. Certain episodes have left me feeling that, not only has the ball not been moved downfield, but no play has been called at all. Nevertheless, the show is at its strongest when it slows things down: the knowing glances between Noah and Alison as they lie to their dinner hosts; Helen’s father waxing nostalgic in the backseat of a cab.
This is what its makers are going for: an undeniable realism that hits its viewers in the chest. In an interview with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall last year, Sarah Treem, The Affair’s co-creator, said, “We wanted to tell a story about two good people…You have kids and then you meet somebody by chance who you think is your soul mate. What do you do?” In attempting to answer that question in a believable way, Treem has set her show up for a peculiar kind of failure: when something actually happens on The Affair to move its story along, it often feels jarring and untrue. When Noah’s teenage daughter bursts into his new home, cursing and furious — or, far worse, the show’s current engine, a Revenge-level plot about a vehicular homicide — you can almost sense Treem’s embarrassment. Sorry, she seems to say; I need to build some scaffolding around those knowing glances. In this, she has become a victim of her own success: the greater its authenticity, the more false The Affair often feels.
This has been an issue that films have dealt with for decades: how can something be both entertaining and true to life — which, as we are all acutely aware, is overwhelmingly mundane? From Wild Strawberries to Ordinary People to Drinking Buddies, movies have grappled with this paradox to varying degrees of success. On television, the problem has been exacerbated by the medium’s drama-driven “golden age,” which has allowed showrunners like Treem to create, essentially, movies without end. Shows must now perform an act, from season to season, which once had to be performed only from show to show: maintaining our interest without letting things get too wonky. And this is most difficult to pull off for shows such as The Affair — and Parenthood, Brothers and Sisters, In Treatment, and many more — that strive for realism above all else. Well, not above all else. More than anything, they want to stay on the air. And naked emotionalism isn’t the surest path to big ratings.
Friday Night Lights, which aired from 2006 to 2011, was, for all its raucous stadiums and bone-jarring collisions, one such quiet show. A conversation between husband and wife, or two struggling brothers, carried greater weight than the Dillon Panthers’ drive towards a championship. As Connie Britton, one of its stars, said in a 2011 Grantland oral history, “It’s not a show about football. It’s a show about community and family and the way people interact with each other.” As such, it was always on the cancellation bubble, and in response, it pulled a nearly-fatal stunt to kick off season two: it had one of its meekest characters commit murder. In the Grantland piece, the gimmick was explained: “We were coming to the end of Season 1, and the show was critically well-received,” said supervising producer David Hudgins. “But the numbers…So we thought, let’s do something big, something shocking and titillating and provocative.” Jesse Plemons, who played the unlikely murderer, said, “I never imagined Season 2 to go like it did, with the storyline about Landry murdering Tyra’s attacker.” Producer John Zinman admitted, “In retrospect, I think we would all say, ‘That was a bad call.’”
I didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to tell me that; I remember turning to my wife as we watched the episode and saying, “What the hell was that?” But for the all flagrance of Landry’s ratings-chasing violence, such things happen on such “authentic” shows many times per episode; it’s all a matter of degrees. On Parenthood, it’s an argument that sends someone storming from a room, or a business that gets hit by burglars. On Six Feet Under, it’s a kidnapping by a crack addict, or the accidental ingestion of Ecstasy. On The Affair, it’s Helen getting stoned in Washington Square Park and having vengeful sex with her ex-husband’s best friend.
Movies can avoid these speed bumps more easily, because they don’t need to drag us along for a span of years. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is a nearly perfect film in which little of consequence ever seems to happen. It’s 111 minutes long. The aforementioned Drinking Buddies hinges on even less, but remains almost mystically entertaining. It runs an hour and a half. TV dramas, however, don’t benefit from such brevity. In Treem’s HitFix interview, she said, “We’re only doing ten episodes the first season, and I had asked for that, because I knew that I had ten episodes of really great story and then beyond that I was gonna start reaching.”
The Affair — now 15 episodes in — isn’t reaching yet, but it is entering a phase that seems unique and fairly uncomfortable. Its realism is so assured that its necessary, story-moving dramas have come to seem loud and fraudulent. Treem’s goal was for us to believe that we’re just like these characters, and that — not high-octane thrills or McGuffin-packed storytelling — is what draws us in to her show and others like it. Who hasn’t thought of being unfaithful — of burning the whole thing down and starting over, just to see what it’s like? But the difference between our lives and those of television characters is that we don’t need extraneous drama to earn an annual renewal. We just keep on living, and it can get pretty boring sometimes. That’s why we watch TV.