I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
For the last five years, movies about America’s various Middle East conflicts have been, broadly speaking, polemical, didactic, and forgettable. Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which grossed all of $65,000 domestically and received stateside critical acclaim comparable to Surfer Dude, typifies, at least statistically, this first generation of contemporary American war films. Then in July came The Hurt Locker (the Father), and in November The Messenger (the Son), whose hands-off approach to desert warfare politics signaled, shall we say, an aesthetic sand-change. Neither Katheryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) nor Oren Moverman (The Messenger) spent much time moralizing about the war; they exchanged national horrors for personal ones, and the results have been revolutionary. As I wrote in an earlier review of The Hurt Locker:
The Hurt Locker is not a sentimental portrait of brotherhood (the soldiers bond by drinking and punching each other in the stomach). And yet somewhere within the first half-hour I found myself wishing I were with them in the desert. The soldiers’ work is arduous, to say nothing of deadly, but Staff Sergeant James’ (Jeremy Renner) approach to defusing his bombs is elegantly simple. He appears at peace working, and that calm amidst one of the tensest dramas in recent film history is intoxicating. He is not so different from the poet striving to write a clear image.
Two films, though, do not make a movement any more than solid and liquid represent the states of matter. But Brothers, Jim Sheridan’s semi-masterpiece about the aftermath of war, appeared last Friday, and like the Holy Ghost—that gaseous limb of the set—completed the trinity.
The Hurt Locker and The Messenger document, with almost mutual exclusion, the poles of deployment. The Hurt Locker, save for ten minutes near the end of the film, takes place in Iraq. Conversely The Messenger, excluding a brief flashback to an army base near Baghdad, plays out in the United States, following around two soldiers who deliver the news of combat deaths to next of kin. Brothers attempts a synthesis of these two stages. It is the most ambitious of the three films, and accordingly the least successful. Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) gets shipped off to Afghanistan, where his helicopter is promptly shot down. Back in the States, his young wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), both believe he’s dead, and in a moment of mutual need one night strike up a pseudo-chaste affair. They do nothing more than kiss, but that’s enough. Whether out of desperation or something more permanent, they fall in love. Then one afternoon Grace gets a phone call. Captain Cahill was captured, not killed. He’s alive, well(ish), and shipping home.
This scenario should be an equation for great filmmaking, and Jim Sheridan delivers no shortage of drama (cabinets are smashed, guns are waved). But Captain Cahill’s arc—specifically his imprisonment in the mountains—feels somehow gratuitous. Though the events that take place in Afghanistan are the cause of Sam’s psychological break, Brothers could have been a much more powerful film if the cameras hadn’t crossed the Atlantic with him. In The Messenger, for instance, all the violence takes place offstage, leaving us to imagine the trauma overseas, but forcing us to watch the domestic horror as family after family loses a child. Oren Moverman, whether due to budgetary constraints or simple good taste, doesn’t recreate the battlefield on screen.
The great revelation of The Messenger happens on a couch. Near the end of the film, Staff Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson) sit in a living room, and Montgomery tells the story of his last firefight in Baghdad. A lesser performer than Foster might have failed to convey, through anecdote, the gravity of losing your men in war, so one could argue that Brothers didn’t have the talent to pull off such a narrative coup. But Sheridan’s movie is full of astounding, subtle acting. Tobey Maguire is as menacing silent as he is loud, and at times he gets very loud. It seems ironic, therefore, that Sheridan, who inspired some of the most extraordinary performances of the last twenty years (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot is almost unbeatable, even by Lewis’ other egos), didn’t trust his cast to do the heavy psychic lifting.
Sheridan is more comfortable at the dinner table or in the kitchen than he is in a burning helicopter. Therefore the dramatic inconsistencies between his staging of his Afghani and American scenes lie in his inability, or at least lesser ability, to illustrate violence effectively. Following that logic, it might not come as a surprise that the most harrowing scene in Brothers is not when Cahill hides from a sniper under a rocky outcropping, or falls from the sky in a burning airship, but rather when he meets the young son of Private Willis, a Marine he watched die in Afghanistan. The boy crawls out of the family room, where Willis’ widow and Grace are talking. From all fours the boy stares at Cahill. This tension between man and infant is more terrifying, and more saturated with complex guilt, than anything Sheridan conjures up on the battlefield between soldier and terrorist.
No doubt the success of that scene, and for that matter all of Sheridan’s domestic scenes, has something to do with visual patience. During a meal, Sheridan’s camera isn’t dynamic. But when a scene is supposed to be hectic, like in the mountains of Afghanistan, Sheridan directs his lens hectically. Conversely, The Hurt Locker, a far superior action film to Brothers, induces anxiety through stasis. That film’s most tormenting scene—a man approaching an Army checkpoint wearing an explosive vest—does not utilize music or manipulative editing that might detract from the impending horror. Thus The Hurt Locker’s violence unfolds, instead, with the visual calm of a conversation. If Sheridan had shot his war like Bigelow shot hers, or like he did his Thanksgiving dinner, he’d deserve to stand alongside Bigelow and Moverman as one of the best directors this year.
But Sheridan does succeed (though still not as well as Bigelow or Moverman) in removing most of his personal political perspective. Perhaps not since Franklin J. Schaffner made Patton has a director—or in this case three directors—abstained from commenting on the ethics of war so thoroughly. Granted, Sheridan makes a caricature of the Afghani tribesmen who kidnap Captain Cahill, but you certainly couldn’t convict him of demonstrating liberal bias. If anything, his depiction of the enemy is flat and narrow; and at least publicly, that’s the conservatives’ characterization.
War is in the end too devastating and too personal to expend much energy concocting a general morality lesson. Bigelow, Moverman, and Sheridan aren’t lionizing battle, but neither are they condemning it. Nations fight, they seem to be saying, our men and women bleed, and everything beyond that is a distraction. For that objectivity alone, all three of these films deserve to be lauded, if Brothers a bit more reservedly. Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone may arrest the trend next spring (March is historically a bad month for film releases), but for now we have a renaissance on our hands.
…I’d have to bite the bullet and get Tivo, because in the last few weeks, the Christian Sabbath has become a televisual feast day for people of the book. The 8 p.m. time slot currently offers a difficult choice between NBC’s quasi-Biblical Kings (recommended by Emily) and HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (filmed in Botswana, a country that has fascinated me ever since I read Mating). Then, at 9 on PBS, there’s the Masterpiece adaptation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, a Wire-like whirligig of plot and thespian energy that in many ways excels the novel.The rest of the week, alas, continues to be wall-to-wall reality show, and while the new Vivica A. Fox vehicle Cougars sounds intriguing, I guess I can hold off on the DVR. I have no expectation that the current embarrassment of riches on Sunday night is anything but a fluke.
Mad Men is about to disappear from our lives once again, leaving us to grapple alone with our complicated nostalgia for an era when men were men, women were secretaries, and alcoholism was glamorous. These books give a closer look at the era, offering a vision of Midcentury Manhattan that goes beyond Cheever and Yates. (Although Cheever and Yates are a great place to start, if you haven’t already.) Read them to tide you over until the next season or to fine-tune your predictions for this week’s series finale:
1. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, by David Rieff and Susan Sontag
If Sontag were alive today, it’s unlikely she would find much to admire about Mad Men, and yet she and Don Draper have a lot in common. Ambitious and seductive, both came to Manhattan to make themselves anew, rejecting their provincial roots. Among the many revelatory moments in Sontag’s diaries, the nakedness of her self-creation is the most startling; there are Gatsby-like resolutions for self-improvement, reading lists, and meticulous records of films, plays, and parties attended. Like Don Draper, she loved to use high-flown language to talk about popular culture, and was happiest when pulling nicotine-fueled all-nighters. She and Don also share a dread of monogamy, while at the same time rushing into ill-advised romances. Here’s Sontag on her early marriage to Philip Rieff: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.”
2. Manhattan, When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell
This sweet, searching memoir about a young woman’s coming of age in Manhattan in the 1950s and early 60s is full of Mad Men-esque images, and narrated with the same rueful, if-we-only-knew-then-what-we-know-now tone. A former magazine writer for Mademoiselle and Vogue, Cantwell’s memory is pleasingly specific as she recalls fashions of the day and the best place to get a sundae in Midtown. The book is also a record of her first marriage to a young, aspiring novelist whose bohemian tastes infected her own. Disdainful of suburban living, Cantwell and her husband chose the West Village instead, where they moved from charming apartment to charming apartment with an ease that seems like utter fantasy today.
3. The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne
Page through this and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the meals that Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudy, has waiting for him when he comes home from work. First published in 1961, it was the book that a generation of young housewives learned to cook from before they graduated to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
4. The Early Stories, 1953-1975, by John Updike
Although only a handful of the stories in this collection take place in Manhattan, Updike was born within just a few years of Don Draper, and his stories reflect the peculiar pathologies of their generation, “the Silent Generation.” Raised during the Great Depression, both men grew up in a time of scarcity only to come of age in an era of prosperity. Such extremes of experience were bewildering, creating feelings of both wonder and discontent. As Updike writes in his 2003 foreword to the collection, “We were simple and hopeful enough to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties. Yet, though spared many of the material deprivations and religious terrors that had dogged our parents, and awash in a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, we continued prey to what Freud called ‘normal human unhappiness.’”
5. The Grand Surprise, The Journals of Leo Lerman, by Leo Lerman
Leo Lerman, a social butterfly whose name is likely included in any number of books of the period, is briefly mentioned in Manhattan, When I Was Young, in a passage describing the offices at Mademoiselle:
Leo Lerman, the entertainment editor, sat in a sort of railed-off den behind an enormous mahogany desk, taking phone calls from Marlene Dietrich and Truman Capote. A plump, bearded man, he lived in a house so excessively Victorian it defied the century, which was the point, and had a collection of friends so dazzling I am still dazzled by it.
Published posthumously in 2007, Lerman’s diary reveals the full extent of his “dazzling” collection of friends, which included Carson McCullers, Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis, and George Balanchine, among others. In the 1960s, he was installed as features editor of Vogue, and became one of the decade’s tastemakers, introducing readers to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., August Wilson, and Iris Murdoch. Although Lerman’s version of Manhattan, with its focus on the literary, fashion, and theater worlds, is quite different from the one portrayed on Mad Men, his diaries share the same interest in gesture and language, especially the indirect ways people communicate with another. Attempting to find meaning in his diaries, Lerman wrote: “Personality, that is what I want to pin down, no matter how fleetingly, for the personality of a man is component to personality of his era.”
6. Within The Context of No Context, by George W. S. Trow
Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that at its heart, Mad Men is about the massive cultural shifts that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the way someone like Don Draper, an archetype of an earlier era, learns to adapt. George Trow’s classic essay, Within the Context of No Context, first published in The New Yorker in 1980, is a retrospective analysis of those cultural shifts, as well as his own anguished response to them. The son of a newspaperman, Trow writes that he grew up expecting to “have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old.” Instead, he came of age only to find that his father’s version adulthood could no longer be inherited: “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned…” Like our nostalgia for the world of Mad Men, Trow’s is undercut by his understanding that it was never very sustainable to begin with.
7. Talk Stories, by Jamaica Kincaid
After being told that Mademoiselle “would not hire black girls”, Jamaica Kincaid started her writing career at Ingenue magazine, whose offices were in the same building as National Lampoon’s. Recognizing Kincaid’s wit, a writer at National Lampoon introduced her to The New Yorker’s George Trow, who became her mentor. Kincaid’s first assignment for The New Yorker was to accompany Trow to Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade. Trow transcribed Kincaid’s comments for a “Talk of the Town” column, introducing the world to her joyful, youthful, and subtly ironic point of view. After that, Kincaid wrote her own “Talk” pieces. Talk Stories collects Kincaid’s essays into one volume, covering nearly a decade of New York City life, from 1974-1983. Although the columns don’t — at least not yet — overlap with the time period portrayed in Mad Men, it’s fascinating to see how a young black woman from Antigua managed to subvert the staid “Talk” format, which was at the time an unsigned column written in the first person plural, and free of curse words, sex, gossip, and any subject that might be considered trendy. Despite these strictures — or maybe because of them — the spirit of the era shines through. Kincaid’s spirit also shines, and taken together, these essays form a portrait of a young woman striving to find her place in the world. A must read for anyone with a soft spot for Peggy Olsen.
8. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Where Mad Men depicts life on Madison Avenue, with occasional glimpses into the life of New York’s bohemian culture, Smith’s memoir is a portrait of downtown New York with occasional glimpses of Fifth Avenue, where she worked for years as a bookseller at Scribner’s. Smith’s point of view is decidedly romantic as she recalls the years when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were broke nobodies, trying to decide whether to spend her paycheck on art supplies or diner meals. “We hadn’t any money but we were happy…I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks — my monastic mess.” Reading Smith’s girlish memories, you’ll understand why Don sometimes gets a wistful look when talking to Megan.
9. Jack Holmes & His Friend, by Edmund White
Edmund White’s most recent novel, about the decades-long friendship between a gay man and a straight one, illustrates the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s from a new angle. Like Mad Men, Jack Holmes & His Friend begins in a world that is still dominated by the manners and mores of the 1950s. Jack, who is gay, must hide his sexuality from his straight friend, Will. But as the counter-culture takes hold, the tables turn and it’s Will who struggles with this sexuality, feeling trapped in his marriage while Jack blossoms, embracing a new identity as a “sexual libertine.” Covering a period of over thirty years, this novel includes many evocative descriptions of a Manhattan gone by, as well as a number of blow-out party scenes, resulting in debaucheries worthy of Don Draper.
10. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
This work of narrative non-fiction is an investigation of the migration of African-Americans from the south to northern and western cities, a profound demographic shift that began after World War I and continued through the 1970s. Wilkerson ties her narrative to the lives of three individuals, who each leave the south to settle in three different cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The pathos of Wilkerson’s narrative comes as her subjects realize that escape from Jim Crow laws does not mean an escape from racism. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the civil rights movement — something that seems, to the characters of Mad Men, to come out of nowhere, but was actually a decades-long process, rooted in the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of thousands of migrant families. As Wilkerson writes of one of her subjects, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, “Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.”
The siege may soon be over. That’s right, the WGA strike may be over by Christmas. If this is indeed true, it’s unclear who “wins” in this scenario, other than TV viewers, who won’t have to sit through any more reruns, and all the non-writer people who make a living in TV. Rob Long thinks the strike (and the effects of emerging media, in general) might make Hollywood find a more efficient way of producing content. That remains to be seen.In the meantime, the strike has produced some interesting sideshows, like the writers of “The Daily Show” taping a YouTube “webisode” outside Viacom headquarters, and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” performing an unaired episode of the show, complete with indie it-boy host Michael Cera and musical guest Yo La Tengo, to benefit the show’s crew. The SNL performance used skits that couldn’t make it onto the air, either because they were too raunchy or because they simply weren’t that funny (Considering the quality of recent season of SNL, one has to wonder just how bad these skits really were). What does this mean for those of us living in Los Angeles? Well, on the plus side, the economy won’t collapse. And there are likely to be more seats at the local coffee shop, as well. On the other hand, this might mean more episodes of “Cavemen.”Peace, but at what cost?