While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
● ● ●
1. James Franco walked into the classroom and took the seat next to mine. No introductions were made: Just a guy in a raggedy hoodie and crisp leather jacket, one of four prospective students ushered in by the director of the Brooklyn College fiction program. He wore a disaffected manner punctuated with spates of kinetic restlessness. His hair was dyed orange. How likely that a movie star would have nowhere better to be on a Thursday night than there with us, fiction-addled freaks? Wasn’t there something happening at, like, The Viper Room? We were discussing a story that novelist and workshop leader Joshua Henkin had assigned, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (really the story MFA programs assign). "Desire in fiction" was the ostensible topic. The guy who seemed to be James Franco focused intently on Henkin, leaning forward now and again so that his leather jacket creaked. He began to dine on a package of vending machine snacks after tearing the plastic open with his teeth and pouring a few morsels into a cupped hand. I looked from the page in front of me and up at James Franco and back to the page in front of me where Lt. Jimmy Cross was shifting a pebble around in his mouth while dreaming of his unrequited love for a faraway girl. A few of my classmates were smiling aimlessly in my general direction (read: James Franco’s general direction). On the table in front of him was a book: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. And, there it was, confirmation in words, a manila folder at his feet whose label read "Franco – NY Schedule." The urge to smile was now almost overpowering. I fought it back. James Franco spoke up, the second prospective student to do so, addressing the point of view of Lt. Jimmy Cross and his comrades in Vietnam: “These are guys who’ve seen things we’ve never seen and hopefully will never see.” I rose out of silence to make my own comment. Joshua Henkin said: “That’s a really great point, Jeff.” Without looking his way again, I thought: James Franco now knows that I made a really great point. Then: how embarrassing to be patronized in front of James Franco. When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying. “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee. His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethem cartoon man. He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes. It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility. There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee. When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken. And I could have saved them that look by simply saying "Sure." But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco. So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away. Then, just as quickly, turned back. “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious. 2. Among his brief remarks this past Monday night prior to the Lincoln Center screening of Howl starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, the poet Lou Asekoff, retired director of the Brooklyn College poetry program recalled how Ginsberg once burst into his office to say, “I just blew the guy who knew a guy who blew a guy who knew the rough-hewn tradesman who as a boy lay all night in Whitman’s lap.” Ginsberg considered Walt Whitman a mentor, “Howl,” his expansive “Song of Myself.” For those expecting a character study of the Beats, the new film isn’t it. It is, instead, a passionate homage to the poem. The visuals skip between three different fields of reference: an outlaw fantasia animated by Erik Drooker; Ginsberg as played by James Franco in an unshaven interview doing things like sitting on a couch and lighting a stove while talking about his work and again, clean-shaven, in the San Francisco Six Gallery where the poem debuted two years before (1955), actors as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in silent tow; and a courtroom drama with Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich arguing against the poem’s obscenity, David Strathairn as the D.A. Ralph McIntosh arguing to condemn it, in a sort of Humbert Humbert Ladies-and-Gentlemen-of-the-Jury type treatise on literature’s angels and devils. Each section has high points. Consider David Strathairn’s delivery of the line, prosecutor Ralph McIntosh’s inadvertent poetry of frustration with Ehrlich’s defense: “I don’t want to box with him, he’s disturbing me. I open my mouth and out fly fists.” Regarding creative ferment, Franco as Ginsberg recalls the conversation he had with his therapist on whether or not to leave the buttoned-down life behind, having shunted away feelings of his own desires in favor of a desk job. How can he possibly part with that order, Ginsberg recalls asking his therapist, when if he does so he may well end up wretched and white-haired and alone? His therapist, he says, told him to go for it, adding, “You are very charming and lovable and people will always love you.” A gasp of laughter escaped from the movie theater audience. In the Q&A session that followed the screening, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seated up front alongside their star, an audience member asked BC (and Columbia and NYU) MFA alum James Franco, what he made of his role as a cultural icon, or one rapidly in the making? Answered Franco, “I hope to bring attention to some areas being passed over, or dying, lost in the shuffle—you know, poetry is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, so if I can help bring it some attention, that’s not a bad thing.” The evening ended and almost everyone took to their feet, a crowd of admirers clotting the exit lane around the movie star, writer and artistic frontiersman James Franco. I couldn’t help it—I was smiling. Okay, I had passed up on coffee. Perhaps, in a life not without its stupid moves, it was the stupidest of all: my friends’ faces say as much. Fame is voracious, and who hasn’t hungered for it? But alone on my row, looking to the front of the theater, I saw—I know that I was seeing—in some literary way, through the fever of my belief in the immortal word, the image of a different kind of friend: one I could trust to carry a dream forward.
● ● ●
Critics have been hard on Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby since it opened last week. This latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous (and famously unfilmable) novel is pulling down a 55 on Metacritic and a 50 percent unfavorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern went so far as to call the film "dreadful" and said it "derogates the artistry of Fitzgerald." You might think, then, that the people who know Fitzgerald's novel best would have the most disapproving view of the movie. To test that hypothesis, we asked five English professors who specialize in American literature to take in an early showing and share their thoughts. And to our surprise, they liked it. Of course, they had their problems with the movie, too, some of which are less minor than others. But they praised Carey Mulligan for turning in arguably the best version of Daisy Buchanan the silver screen has ever seen, and there was abundant acclaim for Leo as Jay. They also admired the way Luhrmann pulled material from Fitzgerald's short stories and his first draft of Gatsby in order to create a screenplay that isn't quite a facsimile (in a good way) of the finished novel. And, as you can read below, they actually applauded Luhrmann for omitting the most famous line of the novel. 1. Kirk Curnutt, Troy University What I most hoped Luhrmann would nail is Daisy’s depiction. Because, honestly, Fitzgerald didn’t, and none of her previous cinematic incarnations did either. Of course, we have no idea how Lois Wilson fared in the lost 1926 silent. The only thing the trailer reveals is that Georgia Hale as Myrtle Wilson could inflate her eyes as big as this lady. Betty Field in 1949 played Daisy like your best friend’s spunky little sister, while Mira Sorvino in 2000 had nice hair. As for Mia Farrow, I’ll only say that if I play her clips at home my Labrador runs in circles wondering who stole her squeak toy. Carey Mulligan is as good as we can expect from a character that is even more of a cipher than Jay Gatsby. She conveys Daisy’s forced gaiety at the Buchanans’ estate and doesn’t sound screechy-silly delivering the “beautiful little fool” line. Mulligan’s melancholy in later scenes has a wan as opposed to hysterical quality that I found stirring. I love that Luhrmann lets Daisy attempt to telephone Gatsby at the moment Wilson arrives to take revenge. It’s time we empathize rather than vilify the golden girl. One minute you’re a 22-year-old overgrown woman/child raised to sit on couches and yawn, married to a philandering slab of roast beef, miserable even if you’re described as not happy but not unhappy either, and next thing you know literary critics are calling you a “bitch goddess” for decades on end. Maybe I missed it adjusting my 3D glasses, but I was glad Baz cut the “voice full of money” line. I’ve never understood whether coming from Gatsby it’s admiration or an insult. All I know is that I myself have long wanted to save Daisy -- though I wouldn’t run out into the road to do it. 2. Michael DuBose, Penn State University When someone assembles an edition using all the available variants of a text, we call that an “eclectic” volume. These are often put together to unify a book’s textual history. Baz Luhrmann does something similar with his Great Gatsby. Instead of slavishly adhering to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, Luhrmann takes cues from an early version of the novel, some of the short stories, and Fitzgerald’s own life. The result is a movie slightly different from its source, but no less authentic. This comes through most clearly in Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio seems to take his inspiration from Fitzgerald’s first draft of the novel, Trimalchio. In that text, Gatsby is edgier, more mysterious, and more neurotic. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is equal parts vulnerable and calculating. His character’s mannerisms are carefully crafted and rehearsed, but that poise belies an imposter complex that DiCaprio acts to perfection. The ubiquitous “Old Sport,” for example, totters between casual endearment and desperate refrain. It’s the lynchpin keeping Gatsby’s whole identity from unraveling. DiCaprio almost swears it out as an incantation against the façade crumbling. There are echoes of Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” and “Absolution” along with Trimalchio, and even a nod to the “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys” line from the author’s youth. Most of it works, but sometimes the concept falls flat. (The “rich girls” line, specifically, is blurted without any context.) However, we know what we’re getting with Luhrmann; he’s going to execute the grand set pieces to perfection, but will stumble with the nuanced stuff. The director clearly shares Jordan Baker’s enthusiasm for large parties: whenever there are more than five people in a scene, the film sizzles. When there are fewer, it drags. Overall, Luhrmann has assembled an eclectic movie that may not be great, but is certainly Gatsby. 3. Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University He did it innocently, but a student gave me a spoiler a few days before. I knew that the framing device would be Nick Carraway -- in a sanitarium. Whether it was for physical or (more likely) mental health I wasn’t sure, but this colored my expectations. I was cautiously optimistic. Gatsby is not easily adaptable, yet Luhrmann -- like his style or not -- is skilled and creative. We know we’re going to get edginess, hyperactive visuals and sounds, and the same “grand vision” that Nick ascribes to Gatsby’s entire persona. The film is very impressive. I knew Luhrmann was drawing from the novel and draft, Trimalchio, such as during the second party. And the institutionalized Nick frame? It’s bold, but it smartly conveys his unreliability and shows him writing the story. Except for a few disappointing cuts -- say, Gatsby’s father and the funeral -- Luhrmann deftly merges his style with Fitzgerald’s, such as in the first Gatsby party or the alcohol-fueled tension at Myrtle and Tom’s apartment. Luhrmann excels in adding visual details in the spirit of the novel: the “JG” insignia adorning virtually everything in Gatsby’s home, or the “ad finis fidelis” (“faithful to the end”) on the property’s main gates that echoes Fitzgerald’s description of Gatz–Gatsby. The strongest scene was the Gatsby–Daisy reunion. It was awkward, funny, garish -- and spot on. DiCaprio and Mulligan captured the reunion’s tense yet tender nature, and Maguire just as nicely played the straight man in Gatsby’s engineered scene. Equally strong was Joel Edgerton as Tom, who embodied his smug, entitled, and controlling personality, particularly during the Plaza confrontation. Separating the teacher-scholar in me -- especially one who specializes in American literature and adaptation -- from the reader–moviegoer is tricky. Yes, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is dynamic, loud, different, and vibrant. It changes scenes and language, leaves out some, and adds others. It’s also brilliant. 4. Sara Kosiba, Troy University; Program Director of the 12th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference Critics have said for years that The Great Gatsby is an un-filmable book, and I’ve largely been in agreement. My love for Fitzgerald’s book stems from the poetry of language and the descriptions on the page. When word of Baz Luhrmann’s new film began to circulate and included the detail that it would be filmed in 3D, my fellow Fitzgerald aficionados and I began to joke of “Eckleburg eyes” leering out from the screen. I am pleased to say that my recent viewing of the film was not nearly the potential nightmare I envisioned. Luhrmann’s film maintains a strong sense of the highs and lows in Fitzgerald’s original. Unlike the well known 1974 version starring Robert Redford (which I always found washed out and flat), this new incarnation of Gatsby captures the vibrancy and richness of Fitzgerald’s fictional world. The 3D technique adds to this richness by never seeming gimmicky or false. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan do an outstanding job of capturing the inner conflict within Gatsby and Daisy. One of my quibbles would be with Tobey Maguire’s Nick. I think it may be more the script than the acting on Maguire’s part, but one of the details I love in the novel is Nick’s unreliability as a narrator, something that does not come through as clearly in this version (although the sanitarium framing device works well, and the insider reference to celebrated editor Max Perkins in the title of it is a nice touch). Despite seeing other pros (the costumes) and cons (some of the settings), I do find this the best film version of Gatsby to date. Luhrmann’s intentions are in line with the soul of the novel, although I hope that it will not become a modern replacement for the actual poetry of the original. 5. Doni M. Wilson, Houston Baptist University Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby delivers in the categories that viewers might expect: the settings, the costumes, the slick and stylized look that accompanies all of Lurhmann’s visual pyrotechnics. All of the hype about the music faded away as the film progressed: it just seemed to underscore the excitement of the Jazz Age without being an anachronistic distraction. It wasn’t your parents’ Gatsby, but why should it have been? Once I got through the shock of Nick Carraway writing his retrospective book from an institution, I was able to concentrate more on the entire reason I was excited about this film: Leonardo DiCaprio. Now let me say, no one can pull off a pink suit like Leo, and he looks the part, but I just did not understand the accent. What was the accent? Why did it change from scene to scene? Why did he have to say “Old Sport” like “Ol Spore,” dropping his ds and ts? Why why why? Other than that, he was perfect. I don’t think he should have screamed quite so loudly in the Plaza Hotel scene, because it made it seem like Daisy was rejecting him for anger management problems, but perhaps I quibble here. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Fay Buchanan was definitely a step up from Mia Farrow, but she didn’t seem to command the attention of the other actors, and it made me want to see more of Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson on the screen. Tobey Maguire as Nick was a pleasant surprise, and his understated portrayal made sense. But the absolute, hands-down, best actor in this film is Joel Edgerton playing Tom Buchanan. His physical presence and spot-on delivery convinced me that he understood Fitzgerald’s vision the most acutely, and he should win an Oscar for this role.
● ● ●