Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen – he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example – may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the story from the Hollywood Reporter.
Of all the things gnawing on George W. Bush as he shuffles around his retirement ranch in Texas, I’m guessing the most galling is the fact that he is the only president in the past quarter century who did not have a RoboCop movie released on his watch. That’s got to hurt. In the course of every presidential administration since the Gipper’s — with the notable exception of W’s — a new RoboCop has come out. And down through those many years, America has always gotten the RoboCop it deserved.
(Surely Bush fils is asking himself, “What did I do to deserve…nothing?” The answer: Plenty.)
The latest installment in the RoboCop franchise, now playing in a multiplex near you, once again proves that these movies may fail as movies, but they never fail to illuminate the zeitgeist in which they’re made. The new movie, like its three predecessors, is set in the not-too-distant future in my hometown, Detroit, a city that was chosen as the setting for the original movie in 1987 because it was already well on its way to becoming the sort of dysfunctional dystopia the filmmakers needed to convey their message. The Motor City, once the mightiest industrial dynamo on the planet, had morphed in a few short years into Murder City — the perfect proving ground for a crime-fighter who was, as the movie’s poster put it, “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.”
We Detroiters tend to be inordinately proud of our city’s history, both the good and the bad — its music, its cars, its sports teams, its struggles on behalf of working men and women, its rough edges. In his terrific 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, Mark Binelli beautifully captured this skewed civic pride: “Back when I was a boy, growing up just outside Detroit, my friends and I beheld any mention of the city in popular culture with a special thrill. We loved how Detroit was deemed terrifying enough to be chosen as the dystopian locale of ‘RoboCop,’ the science fiction film set in a coyly undated ‘near future,’ when Detroit had become so dangerous that the outsourcing of law enforcement to an armored, heavily weaponized cyborg would seem a prudent and necessary move.”
The original RoboCop is now regarded as a sci-fi classic, largely because it asked a question of enduring interest: Are machines capable of emotions? But even as the RoboCop movies have declined in quality, they have served as ever-sharper reflections of what’s been going on in the culture at large. Let’s follow the downward spiral:
The 1970s were the last hurrah for the American middle class. Then along came Ronald Reagan to begin the long, ongoing job of dismantling the middle class by shifting its wealth and political power to corporate, government and wealthy elites. Today, thanks in no small part to Ronald Reagan and his spawn, more wealth is in fewer hands than at any time since the stock market crash of 1929.
RoboCop arrived at the perfect moment. Reagan’s second term was about to segue into the lone term of Papa Bush, and many Americans were feeling fat and happy and proud to be American, provided they didn’t live in a blighted pocket like inner-city Detroit or hadn’t had their job outsourced to an autoworker in Mexico. Peter Weller starred as Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop killed by drug dealers in the line of duty, who then has his vitals harvested and installed in a cyborg, turning him into a virtually indestructible cop. This nifty trick is the handiwork of a greedy conglomerate called Omni Consumer Products, which has taken over the Detroit police force and has big plans to build a development in the heart of the city and control its lucrative drug, gambling, and prostitution rackets. Privatizing a big-city police department — it’s very 1980s, an idea only Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher could love. “Trickle-down economics” can be seen trickling in the only direction it ever knew — straight up to the corporate boardroom.
The movie was deftly directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. The writers are blessed with a droll sense of humor, slipping in a mention of Lee Iacocca Elementary School, a nod to the best-selling 1984 book by the Chrysler CEO, an egomaniacal tycoon cut from Reaganite cloth. There are also jabs at dumbed-down TV news, a recurring theme in the coming movies, as when a blow-dried newscaster intones, “You give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world.” There’s even a jab at Star Wars — Reagan’s La-La-Land defense fantasy, not the movie.
Amid all the corporate greed, violent crime, and official corruption, the thing that gives the movie its humanity is, oddly, its cyborg. RoboCop is tortured by scraps of memories of his previous life. “I can feel them but I can’t remember them,” he says of Alex Murphy’s wife and young son. But RoboCop’s best line is a blend of Dirty Harry and that other icon from the pumped-up Reagan ’80s, The Terminator. Staring down a criminal, RoboCop says, “Your move, creep.”
RoboCop 2 (1990)
This first of two sequels was a perfect fit for its times — a re-tread movie released during George H.W. Bush’s re-tread presidency. Both flopped. Unlike the Bush presidency, though, the movie franchise got another chance.
Weller returned in the title role, but Verhoeven was replaced by director Irvin Kershner. Worse, the screenwriters Neumeier and Miner were replaced by Walon Green and Frank Miller. The result has none of the original’s wit or snap.
This time Omni Consumer Products wants to privatize the whole city of Detroit, and there’s a new designer drug on the streets called Nuke. Otherwise the movie feels as bland and generic as the era during which it was made. The only sign that we’re in Detroit are the logos on the police car doors. (The movie was shot mostly in Houston and L.A.) The TV newscasters are the witty ones here, as when a chirpy blonde talking head is told that environmentalists are warning that a pesky little nuclear meltdown could lead to a massive environmental disaster. “Don’t they always say that?” she says before going to a commercial break.
One reviewer noted that RoboCop 2 was “as savagely graphic as its predecessor but less skillful by half.” The same could be said of the Bush and Reagan presidencies.
RoboCop 3 (1993)
In the first year of the Clinton administration, long before Monica and the Gap dress, the keepers of the flame brought out RoboCop 3, directed by Fred Dekker and written by him and Frank Miller. Peter Weller climbed out of the metal suit once and for all — he described it as the most unpleasant acting experience of his career — and Robert John Burke stepped in.
The movie is a dreary rehash, but it does offer one timely twist. A Japanese conglomerate called Kanemitsu now owns and operates all of Detroit, and it plans to clear out thousands of residents in order to complete the Delta City development. But some plucky Detroiters refuse to budge, igniting a civil war between the corporation’s minions and the citizenry. When the corporate thugs have trouble evicting tenants, the head of Kanemitsu fumes, “Incompetent Americans, you are fat and lazy!”
But the best line belongs to McDaggett, the brutal general who tells Rip Torn, the new CEO of OmniCorp: “If you’re just figuring out that the line between big business and war is a little blurry, then you’re even farther over the hill than they say you are.”
This movie goes a long way toward explaining why RoboCop vanished during the George W. Bush presidency. Years before W was elected, RoboCop 3 laid out the doctrine that would define his presidency: War is big business, and vice-versa; xenophobia is cool; and anyone who disagrees with the government is, de facto, a terrorist.
Even in 1993, the message was stale. Roger Ebert asked himself why people persist in making such re-tread movies. His answer: “Because ‘RoboCop’ is a brand name, I guess, and this is this year’s new model. It’s an old tradition in Detroit to take an old design and slap on some fresh chrome.”
The Detroiter in me hates to admit it, but the man was right.
There is exactly one worthwhile scene in the new RoboCop, which is a remake of the 1987 original, unlike the second and third movies in the series, which were sequels. There’s a big difference. Sequels try to say something new with familiar material; remakes are content to update and rearrange the furniture.
As this new remake opens, we’re in the future on the streets of Tehran, the capital of America’s latest Middle Eastern enemy. A TV news crew, led by yet another chirpy blonde, is getting ready to deliver live footage of the new generation of cyborgs that allow America to fight its pointless wars without any pointless risk to American lives. While drone aircraft swoop overhead and gigantic Transformer-esque machines stomp through the streets, robots electronically scan terrified Iranian civilians for signs of bombs, weapons or other threats. Meanwhile, inside a nearby building, a group of Iranian men are strapping explosives to their torsos and reminding each other that “the goal is to die on TV.”
This is meta. This has potential. But as soon as the American machines slaughter the Iranian martyrs, the movie abruptly abandons the timely questions it has raised about the morality of drone warfare and the complicity of the news media in promoting the government’s dubious agenda. Instead, the movie shifts to Detroit, where it proceeds to ignore another potentially rich vein: Detroit’s current bankruptcy, the largest in American history, which has left the city so broken that it takes an hour for cops to respond to emergency calls, most streetlights never get turned on, the population has fallen by more than half, and rich philanthropists had to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to keep debt-collecting wolves from ransacking one of the city’s last assets, its glorious Institute of Arts. This isn’t some futuristic dystopia; this is Detroit today.
But this RoboCop has no interest in examining such pungent contemporary material because it’s content to remain a fantasy. Once again, the result is generic escapism that could have been made anywhere. (Other than some nice aerial shots of Detroit, most of it was filmed in Canada.) The only splash of local color the movie gets right is Detroit’s rococo strain of official corruption. In the movie, several Detroit cops have been funneling high-powered rifles from the evidence locker to a local arms merchant, with the full cooperation of the chief of police. Now that’s verisimilitude. In 1992, Detroit police chief William Hart was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing $2.6 million from a police fund used for making undercover narcotics buys.
But that splash of local color is washed away by the bombastic, jingoistic histrionics of a TV pundit named Pat Novak, played by Samuel L. Jackson. It’s painful to watch this talented actor slog through material that doesn’t even rise to the level of a parody of a parody of Bill O’Reilly. Yet somehow these dreadful Novak segments fit perfectly into a movie that refuses to address the interesting questions it raises — about drone warfare, the morality of crime-fighting techniques, the human cost of corporate greed. The movie wastes other talented actors, including Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle, and leading man Joel Kinnaman, already a star in Sweden and soon to become one here. This squandering of opportunity is a tidy metaphor for what Barack Obama has done with his 2008 mandate to make fundamental changes in the way America functions. Dream on.
The filmmakers seem to have decided — no doubt correctly — that after a dozen years of pointless, endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is worn out. The American public doesn’t want to think about international wars, political corruption, urban decay, or the gutting of the news media and the middle class The American public just wants to be entertained. And so the makers of the new RoboCop have dutifully given them what they want — another noisy, gimmicky diversion that makes the world go away for all of 108 minutes.
Which is to say that, once again, America has gotten the RoboCop it deserves.
“Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound’s 1931 appreciation of literary magazines, contains a confident proclamation: “the history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Commercial publications “have been content and are still more than content to take derivative products ten or twenty years after the germ has appeared in the free magazines.” Pound bemoans that larger publications are unable to “deal in experiment.” Instead, these commercial magazines poach from “periodicals of small circulation,” those “cheaply produced” in the same way a “penniless inventor produces in his barn or his attic.” Thus was created a romantic refrain: modern American writing has its foundation in literary magazines.
Only one of Pound’s favorite magazines still publishes: Poetry. It might be difficult to call Harriet Monroe’s concern a “little magazine”: in 2002, philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry. That organization has since become the Poetry Foundation, and, according to The New York Times, Lilly’s gift is “now estimated to be worth $200 million.” The gift has lead to an excellent website, interdisciplinary events and readings, television and radio promotion of poetry, and educational outreach programs. But how many readers outside of the traditional organs of American literature — aspiring and published poets, students in secondary classrooms and college campuses, and critics — know of, or read, Poetry?
That might not be a fair question to ask. Literary magazines, by form and function, might require narrow focus. Narrow does not mean niche. Literary magazines have consistently enhanced and reflected larger literary trends without being as noticeable as those wider trends. Experimental publications helped spread Modernist writing and thought. As Travis Kurowski writes in the introduction to Paper Dreams, his comprehensive anthology of literary magazine history and culture, Modernist literary magazines “gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers.” Kurowski does not use “imagined” in the pejorative sense. Rather, he speculates that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production, create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Note Kurowski’s valorization of community over circulation. I might add further qualification. Literary magazines are uniquely important in observing the ripples, fragments, and failures within trends. They give readers and researchers the ability to see the flash beyond the snapshot, and in doing so, document moments in American literary history with more nuance than what is gained by only cataloging single-author books. Take Granta: 8, Summer 1983: the “Dirty Realism” issue. I once argued at Luna Park that it was the best single-issue ever of a literary magazine. The process was a thankless exercise, but I was attempting to make the point that even an individual issue of a literary magazine offers a complex cultural sample. Editor Bill Buford explains his collection of a strand of American writing marked by concise prose, destructive relationships, and a particular pessimism. The single issue contained writing by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forché, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Elizabeth Tallent. Not a bad snapshot and flash.
But I’m writing these words as a lover of literary magazines, an affection that was instilled in me at Susquehanna University. The Blough-Weis Library subscribed to Poetry and The Missouri Review, but also gems like Beloit Poetry Journal, where I finally read a poem — “Trout Are Moving” by Harry Humes — that connected me to the genre. If I held a collection by Humes, my 19 year-old mind might have lost interest after a few of his Pennsylvania-tinged, domestic elegies. Instead, I bounded to work by Ander Monson and Albert Goldbarth. Literary magazines made writing manageable and approachable. Our workshop professors used those publications as part of the curriculum, and not because they thought we could publish there. At least not yet. The point was that an awareness of contemporary publishing is necessary, particularly for undergraduates who think the only words that matter are the ones that come from their own pens.
Now when I receive a review copy of a short story collection or purchase a new book of poetry, I immediately turn to the acknowledgments page. And this might be a personal quirk, but I try to find the original issues in which the pieces appeared, and read the work there tucked between writers both established and obscure. I loved Jamie Quatro’s debut, I Want to Show You More, and it yet it felt more personal to read “Demolition” in The Kenyon Review. Literary magazines are the legend to the map of American letters. Yet I worry that this appreciation reveals me for who I am: a writer who submits to these magazines, who uses them in the classroom. This cycle does speak to the insular world of small magazine publishing.
Does anybody outside of our circle care? What is the wider cultural influence of literary magazines? To be certain, I am not sure there needs to be one. An insular economic system will likely fail, as evidenced by the graveyards of defunct magazines, but that does not mean an insular artistic system is inherently bad. Nor should we assume more literary magazines fail than niche publications or commercial releases. Here’s a better question: if for those of us in the circle — writers, readers, editors, teachers, and professors — literary magazines are a mark of credibility and authenticity, what are they to those on the outside? Do these publications carry any particular signification or importance within popular culture?
It would be incorrect to simplify popular culture to film and television, but it is a useful place to begin this consideration. I recently wondered if and when literary magazines have been referenced or included in these visual mediums. I began with two examples that stuck in my mind. In the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office, Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor chooses a “book of short stories” during Michael Scott’s ill-advised game of Yankee Swap. At least to my eyes, that book is an issue of The Paris Review. A more direct literary magazine reference is in the 2007 film Juno, when the titular character says jocks really want girls who “play the cello and read McSweeney’s and want to be childrens’ librarians when they grow up.” The reference was probably lost on many, but on a small but aware crowd, it did its job. Even if that job was simplification.
I couldn’t think of any more examples, so I went to that pop culture land of crowdsourcing, Facebook, for help. My literary friends delivered. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting occurrences, with original contributor citation in parentheses, plus my own investigations.
1. In Cheers, Diane receives a form rejection from West Coast magazine ZYZZYVA. Sam writes a poem that is later published in the magazine (Martin Ott). This appears in the “Everyone Imitates Art” episode, which originally aired on December 4, 1986, during the show’s fifth season. Diane enters the bar, overly excited about a letter from ZYZZYVA. Sam asks: “Who’s ZYZZYVA?” Diane responds: it’s “not a who. It’s a new literary review. Dedicated to publishing the prose and the poetry that’s right on the cutting edge.” The magazine was founded in 1985 by Howard Junker. Diane has submitted a poem, and received an extremely swift two-week response. Frasier Crane takes a skeptical look at the letter, and concludes that it is a form rejection. Diane disagrees, saying that it is a “soon and inevitably to be accepted later,” reading that “your work is not entirely without promise.” She proudly says they are “almost begging for another submission.” Sam agrees that the response is a form letter, and boasts that he could submit a poem that would receive the same type of response. The episode breaks, and when it returns, Diane asks about Sam’s poem. He points to a magazine on the bar, and tells her to open to page 37 and read “Nocturne”: by Sam Malone. She drops the issue and screeches. Diane thinks Sam has plagiarized the poem. She vaguely recognizes the overwritten lines. Somehow, in the span of three weeks, ZYZZYVA has received Sam’s submission, responded, and published it in an issue. Writers everywhere roll their eyes. Frasier tries to console Diane: “this literary magazine’s circulation must be 600.” Diane delivers the ultimate literary magazine rejection rant: “The original 600 readers drop their copies in buses and taxicabs and doctor’s offices and another 600 people pick them up and take them to the airport where they go all over the country. Then they get taken on international flights: Tierra del Fuego, Sierra Leone. All the remotest parts of the world. Soon, I defy you to find a house, a hut, an igloo, or a wickiup that doesn’t have a copy on the coffee table. Then, then, everyone in the world, every living thing will be laughing at me because he got published and I did not!” More sting arrives later, when Woody sends in a poem of his own and receives the same form rejection as Diane. Dejected, Diane vents to Sam, who has created this mess. Sam finally admits that he copied the poem from Diane’s own love letters to him. She considers herself published and validated. In the words of Howard Junker himself, Onward!
2. The Paris Review is mentioned in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys (Neil Serven). Grady, a struggling novelist, talks about one of his students: “Hannah’s had two stories published in The Paris Review. You’d best dust off the ‘A’ material for her.” With no further explanation, the reference is an accepted barometer of literary quality. Yet for a magazine quite aware of its social status, the review’s cultural capital seems localized to the literary community. We might be stretching the parameters a bit too thin here, but co-founder George Plimpton appeared in the “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” episode of The Simpsons (Aaron Gilbreath).
3. We could spend years arguing whether The New Yorker should be considered a literary magazine proper, but it does regularly publish fiction and poetry, so it merits mention. The magazine appears in the film 42nd Street (1933). Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels, holds an issue of the magazine with Eustace Tilley on the cover (Win Bassett). In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney’s character, Joan, is published in an unnamed literary magazine, and later appears in The New Yorker (Neil Serven). That more prestigious publication is revealed in a scene at a restaurant. Bernard, Joan’s estranged husband, is surprised to learn that an excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in the magazine. Another character, Sophie, says the story “was kind of sad, but really good.” Bernard changes the subject. Later, their son Frank’s inappropriate behavior at school prompts a meeting with the principal, who, at the end of the conversation, says that she read and enjoyed Joan’s story in The New Yorker: “it was quite moving.” The magazine also appears often in Adaptation (2002), with the identifying “sprawling, New Yorker shit” (Alex Pruteanu). An early scene occurs at The New Yorker magazine office, where writer Susan Orlean — author of The Orchard Thief, which main character Charlie Kaufman is attempting to make into a film — discusses going to Florida to write an essay for the magazine. Kaufman is having trouble due to the “sprawling” nature of the book, hence the magazine reference as literary code. Kaufman first uses the word “stuff”; later, The New Yorker style is “sprawling…shit.” The magazine, with work by Orlean within, appears open and at a restaurant table in the film. Later, Kaufman watches Orlean, seated alone, reading another magazine. In Kaufman’s voiceover: “Reads Vanity Fair. Funny detail: New Yorker writer reads Vanity Fair. Use!” And the magazine’s cartoons were lampooned in “The Cartoon” episode during the final season of Seinfeld (Tim Horvath). The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff had some fun analyzing the episode here and here.
4. In Mad Men, the character Ken Cosgrove has a story published in The Atlantic Monthly (Brenda Shaughnessy). The publication occurs in episode “5G,” the fifth episode overall of the series. The story is titled “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” His contributor bio is as follows: “A graduate of Columbia University, Kenneth Cosgrove has lived in the New York area for most of his life. Working for the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper puts Mr. Cosgrove in a unique position to observe and study the trends that shape America today. This is his first story to appear in The Atlantic.” Pete Campbell, jealous, longs for his own fiction to appear in (you guessed it) The New Yorker, but is disappointed to learn that the piece only makes it into Boy’s Life Magazine (James Chesbro). The Missouri Review’s Managing Editor Michael Nye has a nice reflection on this episode, and the writer archetype in film, here.
Can you add to the list in the comments?
Image via Nigel Beale/Flickr
In 1999, Sofia Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides into her debut film. The movie was remarkably faithful—perhaps too faithful—to the book, preserving the languid mood, reverential but impersonal treatment of the doomed Lisbon girls, and unusual, first person plural narrative voice.
Last Friday a very different Eugenides adaptation, The Switch, hit the big screen. Based on a short story called “Baster,” which was originally published in 1996 in The New Yorker, the film stars Jennifer Aniston as Kassie, a 40-year-old single woman who decides to get pregnant using a handsome sperm donor. What she doesn’t know is that Wally, her neurotic best friend (and one-time boyfriend), played by Jason Bateman, has replaced the donor’s sample with his own during the drunken party to celebrate her insemination.
Adapting a short story is a different animal from book-to-movie adaptations, and a challenge I’ve been thinking more about after spending the summer working at Zoetrope: All-Story. Francis Ford Coppola founded the magazine with the idea that short stories are more akin to film (and perhaps better source material) than are novels, as both stories and movies are meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each issue of Zoetrope includes a story that has been adapted to the screen: Steven Millhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (The Illusionist, 2006), Alice Munroe’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (Away from Her, 2006), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008’s movie of the same name), among many others.
“Baster” is a good opportunity for an adaptation. It’s funny, with a high-concept plot, and it’s not impressionistic or experimental. (Neil Burger, who wrote and directed The Illusionist, called the Millhauser story that was his source “unfilmable.”) The story lays solid groundwork, but its length—only 6 pages—and unresolved ending gives the screenwriter freedom to make it his own. And individual short stories rarely have a large audience, so aside from, uh, people writing on literary websites, there aren’t fans of the original telling the writers/directors how they messed up or didn’t honor the source.
In a June interview with The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, Eugenides said, “You might say that ‘Baster’ is to The Switch what cello is to cellophane.” Besides pointing out the differences in plot and the like, that comment captures the slide from a rarefied form to something made for mass consumption. The Switch is not an Oscar-bait, “serious” literary movie: directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck made a splash directing the cavemen commercials for Geico, and their first feature film was the Will Ferrell figure skating spoof Blades of Glory.
The movie is less broadly comedic than their resume would indicate. But it’s striking how, on the road to the Hollywood happy ending, the story has been shaved of the barbed edges that make it worth revisiting in the first place.
The plot of “Baster” takes up only the first act of the movie. The story ends just after the baby is born, with Wally’s betrayal undiscovered, still hovering and threatening like an airborne grenade. The screenplay, by Allan Loeb, sends Kassie (renamed from the story, where she’s Tomasina) from New York City home to Minnesota to raise her child, then picks up seven years later, when she moves back to NYC with her neurotic son.
Loeb, who also wrote the Halle Berry/Benicio Del Toro drama Things We Lost in the Fire and the upcoming Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, is currently a hot-shot screenwriter, with 11 scripts in production or development. He is sure-handed in expanding the story, and the best parts of the movie are his own: the tender relationship between Wally and his son; the amusing character of Wally’s friend/mentor/boss, played by Jeff Goldblum; the virtuoso scene in which Wally, on a first date with a younger woman, spins the imaginary tale of the next 20 years of their relationship, ending in depression and resentment.
But overall, the movie feels like those “sequels” to Jane Austen novels. Some curiosity may be satisfied, but the original author’s voice, characterization and specific vision have been distorted. And the deep essentials of “Baster”—the main characters’ chemistry, history, motivations—get lost or softened under rom-com formulas and the golden glow of Aniston’s hair. The biggest example is Tomasina’s past abortions, which are absent in the movie and vivid in the text:
She thought about them, the little children she never had. They were lined at the windows of a ghostly school bus, faces pressed against the glass, huge-eyed, moist-lashed. They looked out, calling, ‘We understand. It wasn’t the right time. We understand. We do.’ … But with three abortions, one official miscarriage, and who knows how many unofficial ones, Tomasina’s school bus was full. When she awoke at night, she saw it slowly pulling away from the curb, and she heard the noise of the children packed in their seats, that cry of children indistinguishable between laughter and scream.
Crucially, one of those children was Wally’s, conceived during their brief, intense fling (which is muted in the movie). Abortion remains more of a taboo in Hollywood than even five young women killing themselves, as in The Virgin Suicides. It’s a shame that the movie just won’t go there. Wally and Tomasina having a child together resonates differently if they’ve aborted one, and their history creates more motivation for the switch—it’s not just Wally passive-aggressively acting out because Kassie doesn’t think he is attractive enough to want his sperm. The story makes the switch an insidious violation, done intentionally and knowingly (though under the influence of alcohol). Wally is spawning the “little heir” that he had “waited ten years to see.” The movie plays the switch as a bumbling drunken accident, and the blacked-out Wally doesn’t even remember his transgression.
In “Baster,” Wally casts relationships and procreation as a Darwinian struggle: “It was becoming clear to me—clearer than ever—what my status was in the state of nature: it was low. It was somewhere around hyena.” And such is often the status of the fiction writer. In the New Yorker interview, Eugenides says, “As a novelist, I pity film directors their lack of autonomy. And I’m sure film directors pity just about everything about novelists.” But while The Switch is a middling dramedy, it’s Eugenides’ story that has the power, sinewy calculation and bite of a wild animal.
One of the most morally and aesthetically interesting aspects of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary film Grizzly Man, the enchanting and bizarre tale of Timothy Treadwell’s life and death among the grizzlies, is Herzog’s decision not to include the existing audio of Timothy Treadwell and Aime Huguenard’s deaths. Treadwell and girlfriend Huguenard were eaten by a grizzly bear while living amongst the grizzlies in Alaska in the summer of 2003. Treadwell’s video camera (at least its audio function) was on while the two were being attacked and this audio is now in the possession of one of Treadwell’s friends. Herzog himself listens to the footage in Grizzly Man, and though viewers cannot hear it, they see Herzog listening to it, and hear him tell the audio’s owner that the recording should be destroyed.A strict empiricist would disagree: If we are to understand an event or a life we must examine all of the evidence, however gruesome. But then, artists are not lawyers or scientists, and artistic justice is rather another thing than scientific or legal justice. Herzog’s choice not to include the audio recording of these two surely horrific deaths is a question that many artists are confronted with. What aesthetic and ethical effects will the representation of a certain act, particularly something like dismemberment or rape, have on my audience? Will the representation of such acts necessarily invoke responses of arousal or morbid fascination in the viewer? While this might serve the purposes of certain artists intent on impressing upon us as visual consumers our complicity with the rapist, voyeur, or bear, it becomes deeply problematic when the artist does not want us to identify with the assailant.Those who have read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace will know that the horror of a traumatic event that goes undescribed is not lessened, as will those who have read Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). Sometimes referred to colloquially as “The Rape of Clarissa,” Richardson’s nearly 1600 page novel does not actually describe Clarissa’s rape. It is through Clarissa herself that we get the novel’s only approximation of a description of the event and her drug-addled memories are described only vaguely – shadows, a candle, the prostitutes (who, we later learn, held Clarissa down for her rapist). Richardson’s choice to refuse description, like Coetzee’s, is an ethical choice. It is a choice that absolutely refuses to offer us the possibility of aesthetic engagement with monstrous acts. If literary and other fiction is, as some hold, a means of playing make-believe, of trying on alternate identities, artists who refuse to represent horrific acts tell us something in these refusals. They do not want us to imagine these things, they do not want to provide the means by which we will be implicated in dehumanizing other people (even if these people are only literary characters). Even to write descriptions of such events would be, to whatever degree, to aestheticize them. And to make a rape into an object of aesthetic contemplation, aesthetic pleasure, is a sort of crime.Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette is the most recent example of this phenomenon that I have encountered. Coppola uses artistic refusal in her decision not to represent any social reality beyond Versailles until the very end of the movie, and then, only slightly. Occasionally, a court character mentions unrest among the people, bread shortages, increased taxes, but no physical evidence of it ever invades Louis XVI’s court until the film’s end, when a crowd of peasants surrounds the palace. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) goes out onto a balcony of the palace and we hear below her (and even see the torches, pruning hooks, and scythes – though not the faces – of) the people below her on the ground. The scene astonishes because through it we realize that Marie and Louis had no idea what was happening beyond Versailles – had no idea these people truly existed, much less that they existed in exigency and anger. They have never seen them – they did not physically exist until this moment when it is too late. And we are made, like the monarchs, to have no idea of the anger and suffering of their people (no visual idea at least, though we all know their eventual fate). Is this refusal unethical? Does it mask the suffering of thousands to force upon us sympathy for two thoughtless, pampered fools or does Coppola’s demand that we understand the king and queen’s ignorance press for an even more scrupulous definition of justice?In “Weighing In,” Seamus Heaney invokes “the power/Of power not exercised”: Sometimes we say more and say it better by refusing to speak.