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.
Max Renn is president of Toronto’s Civic TV, “the one you take to bed with you.” He’s always looking for the next provocation to broadcast: sex, violence, and mayhem are all welcomed. Screen shock is victimless, he claims, saying “I give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations.” But Max wants more for his meager Channel 83. He’s “looking for something that will break through.” He finds the ultimate shock in the form of a pirated video: a dramatized snuff-film called Videodrome, shot in a small red room, with black-garbed torturers and their female victims. Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s classic 1983 film, is perfect viewing for 2017 -- the year a man baptized by television becomes president. The film is an homage to all things small screen: local-access, low-budget, low-resolution. Max, played by a smirking James Woods, will do anything to titillate his viewers, but he’s a sneaky moralist. “Better on TV than on the streets,” he says of violence. Max thinks that he’s controversial, but he soon learns that other provocateurs have what he lacks: a philosophy. In response to criticism of his network’s programming, Max appears on a television talk show, where he flirts with Nicki Brand (played by Debbie Harry), radio host of The Emotional Rescue Show. They go back to his apartment, and he jokingly asks if she wants to watch Videodrome to get in the mood. He’s taken aback when Nicki likes it, and further unsettled when he sees gashes on her neck. Max prefers fantasy, but Nicki’s flesh has been wounded. When she later jokes that she’s going to audition for Videodrome herself, Max pleads for her to stay away from those “mondo video weirdo guys.” Max soon learns from an agent who secures programming for the station that Videodrome is an actual snuff film. Partially because he wants the show for Civic TV -- but mostly because he fears for Nicki’s safety -- Max tries to find the origin of the video. The trail leads Max to the Cathode Ray Mission, its red and blue sign complemented with the Sacred Heart. A crowd of homeless people sift into the building, where they kneel in front of televisions. They suffer from the disease of electronic disconnection: “watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing-board.” Max is there to find Brian O’Blivion, who is described as a “media prophet professor.” The mysterious professor is absent. “I am my father’s screen,” his daughter Bianca says. She recognizes Max from the show, quipping “you said some very superficial things: violence, sex, imagination, catharsis.” In his audio commentary for the film, Cronenberg admits that the professor was inspired by the “communications guru” Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto while Cronenberg attended, but to his “everlasting regret,” he never took a course with the media icon. Cronenberg said that McLuhan’s “influence was felt everywhere at the university” -- a mystical-tinged description that McLuhan would have appreciated. McLuhan earned his doctorate from Cambridge with a dissertation on 16th-century satirist Thomas Nashe. He once sullied the comic strip Blondie for its representations of masculinity. By the time Cronenberg was enrolled at the university, McLuhan was that now rare commodity: a public intellectual. An honest-to-God pop philosopher. Jefferson Pooley notes that McLuhan underwent a “metamorphosis from pious agrarian to media mystagogue.” By the time of The Medium is the Massage -- now a half-century ago -- McLuhan was giving presentations to IBM and General Electric, and regularly appearing on television. Tom Wolfe visited McLuhan, and narrated with disbelief: “he sits in a little office off on the edge of the University of Toronto that looks like the receiving bin of a second-hand book store, grading papers, grading papers, for days on end.” Douglas Coupland thinks what is most endearing about McLuhan is that he was “a classically trained scholar realizing that there’s this thing coming down the pipe -- the Internet -- yet because he didn’t understand the ultimate interface, he was frustrated in his inability to describe it clearly.” Here was a digital Johannes Gutenberg, suited up as “this fuddy-duddy guy in 1950s Toronto.” How do we expect our prophets to appear? McLuhan was old school. He was the oldest of institutions, in fact; a Catholic. A convert by the way of G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain. McLuhan said converts enter the church through the back door -- “coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.” McLuhan considered prayer “constant, nonstop dialogue with the Creator.” He attended Mass daily; he was known to sometimes shorten his classes to attend midday service. His son recalled they would say the rosary as a family at night. Like many converts, McLuhan was conservative in his approach toward the Vatican II reforms. He was not particularly fond of the institutional church, and was surprisingly critical of the Jesuits -- those fellow global-villagers. From the outside, these contradictions might seem to denude his identity. Yet paradox is not only endemic to Catholicism, it is downright Christological. Here was an old man telling us about new media. McLuhan taught us that the difference between aphorism and bumper stickers depends on the medium. He was misunderstood, appropriated, re-mixed. He said of his own work “I don’t pretend to understand it.” No sola scriptura here. Hugh Kenner once wrote “Like Andy Warhol, whose works we don’t need to see to appreciate their point, McLuhan is the writer his public doesn’t need to read.” Of course the reference to Warhol -- a fellow eccentric Catholic, who called Videodrome “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” -- is apt. No doubt that Videodrome is a McLuhan-drenched film, but does the film share his Catholic ethos? (For McLuhan, Catholicism was the medium, the message, and the massage). McLuhan was a scholar of James Joyce, a purveyor of print. He documented the advent of the electric eye, but he didn’t desire it. Although he had “nothing but distaste for the process of change,” he said you had to “keep cool during our descent into the maelstrom.” Max can’t keep cool. He is infected by Videodrome; the show’s reality subverts its unreal medium. Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion helped create Videodrome because “he saw it as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal.” Sustained viewing of Videodrome creates tumors and hallucinations. Max is being played by the remaining originators of Videodrome, whose philosophy sounds downright familiar: “North America’s getting soft, and the rest of the world is getting tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” Videodrome is a way to identify the derelicts by giving them what they most crave -- real violence -- and then incapacitate them into submission. McLuhan’s idea that “mental breakdown is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information,” and his simultaneous interest in, and skepticism of, the “electric eye” finds a gory literalism in Cronenberg’s film. Videodrome is what happens when a self-described existentialist atheist channels McLuhan -- but makes McLuhan’s Catholic-infused media analysis more secular and raw. Cronenberg was able to foretell our electronic evolution, the quasi-Eucharistic way we “taste and see” the Internet. The film’s gore and gush might now strike us as campy, but Videodrome shows what happens when mind and device become one. “Death is not the end,” one character says, but “the beginning of the new flesh.” We’re already there.
I am by nature an optimist, and so I usually begin watching a movie ready to be enthralled. It's up to the movie to prove that such expectations are unjustified. I find with bad movies that usually there comes a point at which I realize that no matter what follows, there's little chance that the film is going to be good. This can be a stilted scene which provides a deductive foothold (as in, "it's highly unlikely that a good movie would contain a scene like that") or it's a plot turn so poorly-conceived that there's no way the movie could possibly recover from it. Last week I saw Ben Affleck's new Boston crime drama The Town. After the first fifteen minutes of action I thought it might be good. Forty minutes in, though, there was no doubting the opposite. The point of no return came when bank-robbing tough-guy from the 'hood Doug MacRay (Affleck) interacted with the putatively well-bred Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) for the first time over quarters in a laundromat. The pickup lines were stilted, the smiles preordained, the chemistry inert—and it was clear that if their relationship was meant to carry the bulk of the movie's narrative tension, then The Town was sunk. And so, ninety minutes later, it was. On the way home I was a little steamed. It was frustrating that the movie had turned out to be dud and all the more so given that The Town, with its stratospherically high 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, seemed to have taken in a good number of America's cinematic tastemakers. (No need to mention it in the comments—I've already switched my loyalties to the more nuanced MetaCritic.) Usually I'm happy enough to leave my assessment of a movie at the level of broad strokes—to say of The Town that it's unimaginative and a touch lazy—but the more I thought about the movie's flaws the more I found that they attach to many of the frustrating dramatic experiences I've had over the years, be it with the contrived plotting of the fourth season of The Sopranos, or with almost any of the melodramas Clint Eastwood force fed the American public this past decade. Plot Arrhythmias: There's a reason that kids learning to write fiction in grade school are taught beginning-middle-end structure. It fits the way we instinctively like our stories. With heist movies there are reliable formulas, typically involving a theft at the beginning which establishes the cunning and audacity of the protagonists, a long middle section in which emotional tensions within and between characters are explored and the stakes are set, and then a blow-out finale in which the protagonists undertake their most ambitious heist yet and either get paid or played depending on the type of mood the filmmakers are aiming for. The Town fumbled this order and as a result never managed to generate narrative steam or a sense of emotional consequence. The movie opened with a less-than-scintillating but still entertaining bank robbery and it closed with a 'heist-of-the-century' shoot-out at Fenway Park. But wedged between these two requisite elements was another extended robbery sequence which gobbled up the middle part of the movie. This misplaced action occupied the space that should have been used to invest the audience in the characters. When it finally ended my friend looked at her watch. It felt like the movie should have been winding down but there was still an hour left, which left The Town in the unenviable position of being flatfooted halfway through the race. Overreaching: Movies, like people, work best when they're comfortable in their own skin and don't try to be something that they're not. The Town was a muddle. It should have been a straight-up, fluffy, entertaining action movie. Instead the script tried awkwardly to fill out Affleck's character with a backstory of maternal abandonment. This was communicated most explicitly during an excruciating multi-minute monologue in which MacRay tells Claire about the day his mom left home, a monologue that could be used in film schools to dramatize the perils of staring in a movie that a movie that you also direct. It was a high-risk gambit that failed, and by failing highlighted the overall shoddy quality of the movie (in the same way that cheap fixtures in a new house should give you pause about the attention that was paid to the foundation). I would have preferred that Doug MacRay had been a bad-ass, but then again part of Affleck's charm has always been that even with his Southie accent, he's still a bit of a sissy. Narrative Dead-Ends: After beginning-middle-end structure, the most inviolable tenet of dramatic writing is Chekov's admonition, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." The Town flouted this egregiously. In the opening heist sequence Claire, the bank manager, spies a distinctive tattoo on MacRay's best friend and accomplice, the volatile and violent Jim Coughlin. Later in the movie MacRay and Claire have gotten involved, and there's some genuine tension created when the intricacies of this triangle become apparent: If Claire ever puts the pieces together she'll have to choose between fingering Charlie and protecting her new lover, while MacRay has to choose between love and loyalty to his best friend. The blue-collar, bank robbing code he lives by requires him to tell Jim about this potentially incriminating witness, even if that means Jim would likely drop Claire's body into the Charles River. But instead of doing something meaningful with this setup, The Town titillates and teases, and then wanders off. It never acts on the tension it's created and as a viewer you're left feeling like you've been manipulated by a cheap trick with no payoff. This is unpleasant in its own right and it indicates the con-artist spirit in which The Town was produced. The filmmakers seem to have approached the movie by asking themselves, "how can we elicit a response from the audience" as opposed to the more appropriate question, "how can we tell a good story." Unoriginality: Here I'm not after Picasso-type originality; I just mean fresh like a new coat of paint on an old barn. A good heist movie needs an element of sexiness—like cool James Bond-style gadgets or an ingeniously imagined caper. In The Town, at the moment when things looked the direst for Affleck and company, I was ready to be wowed by an improbable means of escape. Instead, the best they could come up with was to have MacRay and Jim don police uniforms and blend in with the onrushing Boston PD. It was a ruse we've seen a hundred thousand times and I felt let down by the movie, but also by the filmmakers who couldn't have put more than four minutes of thought into writing it. A romance even the filmmakers didn't believe in: The gaping hole at the center of The Town is MacRay's relationship with Claire. The problems with it are many. I would say it's entirely unclear why be-pearled Claire would be attracted to be-muscled MacRay for anything more than a weekend romp. But there is an antecedent problem, which is that Claire is a completely blank character. We get from the fact that she speaks without an accent and is derided as a "toonie" (a yuppie) that she's an outsider from a higher social-class than MacRay, but this is only at the level of vague suggestion. Not a single concrete detail is offered about who she is or where she comes from or why she acts the way she does. Not one. It's a stunning omission, really. I could have given the script to any of a hundred people and the first critique all of them would have made is the one often heard about female characters in Hollywood productions that Claire's character needs to be at least a little more fully-imagined. Yet somehow The Town passed through who knows how many industry hands without anyone pointing out this bedrock problem or moving to address it. It's a telling indictment of big studio culture that it's even possible that this could have happened. From this root deficiency other problems sprout. The most damming is the stuttering way that MacRay's and Claire's relationship unfolds. They meet at the laundromat, go out for a drink, share a meal and a weepy garden confessional, yet many scenes in it's still not clear if they’re friends or lovers. When they finally kiss, they do so in a way that suggests they've kissed before, but who knows. The relationship was imagined as "Ben Affleck's going to fall for a girl who's above him and it's going to create problems" but no one seems to have thought about how to execute this idea, to turn it from a stock concept into something that grows on the screen. The Town was not the worst movie I've ever seen by a long shot, and most of its shortcomings are so common in big release movies and serial television dramas (even the most highly regarded ones like The Sopranos) that they could easily slide by without being remarked upon. But still, no matter how often I encounter poorly imagined fiction it still incites a visceral response. It makes me angry whenever I see something valuable and important treated cheaply. The Town gestures towards consequential aspects of experience—that childhood wounds linger, that friendships fracture under duress, that love sometimes stands at odds with other necessities in life, that there is power in storytelling—but it does so with the disregard of a knock-off artist trying to make a forgery just good enough to pass. And like the forger, the crime is not so much in the facsimile as it is in the pawning, the asking of the audience to invest emotional energy in a fabrication of life.
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