Screening Room

Don’t Believe the Haters: In Defense of ‘Genius’

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf explains that “No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.” This precise breed of rage has compelled me to write a defense of Michael Grandage’s Genius. Critics have been merciless and viewers were equally unimpressed -- 48 percent and 59 percent respectively on Rotten Tomatoes. I saw the film twice in its brief run and I’ve since read Look Homeward, Angel. The Maxwell Perkins biopic (based on A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius) had been on my radar for over a year and I harbored skepticism over whether the filmic medium could do justice to a pivotal figure in American literary history. The movie won me over completely and though it had its faults I recommended it to anyone who would listen -- booklover or not (which I now realize may have been misguided). Genius focuses on Perkins and Thomas Wolfe’s friendship, working relationship, and the events that led to Wolfe's leaving Scribner's to prove he could be successful in his own right without Perkins’s editing propping up his work. The plot also follows Perkins’s relationship with his wife and daughters, and Wolfe’s tumultuous romance with Aline Bernstein. The film asks questions: What proportion of his life should a man devote to his work? Is this proportion different for an artist? What role should an editor play to a writer? Did Perkins exert undue influence over Wolfe’s work? When I read the reviews I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction, but more surprised that there wasn’t at least one high profile review that lauded the film. Major critics were uniformly unenthused. They say Jude Law’s Thomas Wolfe was hammily acted. The foot stomping and hand clapping and “Aw, shoots" likely inspired this maligning of Law’s portrayal. These manifestations of Southerness are too unsubtle and cliche. But the writer was a ham. He is known for his larger than life personality and verbose style. Also criticized: Law’s southern accent sounded too hillbilly and not aristocratic enough. In Look Homeward, Angel -- Wolfe’s virtual autobiography (or as near as a work of fiction can be) -- the Gants are no aristocrats. They are poor folk. Wolfe is from a humble background and his accent and his southern affectations have only become cliche, have only become affectations, because they are used as quick identifiers for Southern fictional characters. The Southern gimmick is rooted in the reality of authentic Southern qualities and behaviors that existed in real people at one time. A.O. Scott of The New York Times excuses the actors, instead blaming the screenplay, “the actors can perhaps be forgiven, since they are continually pushed into scenes that seem designed to halt subtlety in its tracks.” This lack of subtlety contributes to the primary criticism of “cheesiness,” which is identified in Jude Law’s “hammy acting” and the bromance premise of the movie. I formed a self-righteous theory: those panning the movie were unsympathetic to the world of Perkins, Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. This theory is self-aggrandizing certainly, but it may explain the extreme divide between polemical reviews and paeans to the film. Reading reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it appears Genius suffers from a love-it-or-hate-it polarization that is likely rooted in its somewhat abstruse subject matter. Maxwell Perkins is a hero to lovers of American literature, but he is unknown to the general public. I would expect that the majority of people who saw Genius during its short life in theaters were already acquainted with Perkins and his authors. This precondition could explain the 10 percent gap between critic and audience ratings. Say audiences had at least a tenuous grasp of Perkins’s story and a fondness for the publishing industry in the 1920s -- they would be partial to the movie before stepping into the theater. These are the reviewers who would advise you to ignore the philippics (“Don't allow other reviews to prevent you from an opportunity to experience something very special”), express regret for the unflattering reviews (“Sorry to see your low score”), and care so much as to experience indignation (“I'm incredulous at the bad reviews of this movie”). David Fear levies what sounds like an accusation of intellectualism: “Every scene seems to be lit in a way that screams ‘you are watching a prestigious period pic.’” Could it be a fair accusation? Is it possible that being estranged from the works of the famous writers depicted prevents the audience from fully engaging with the movie and misinterpreting a director’s reverence for pretentiousness? There is a mythic quality about Maxwell Perkins for those who worship at the altar of American literature. Non-believers may not be able to see how or why such a figure commands such interest if they are unfamiliar with the history he helped create. Of course a movie should not only be appreciated by an audience that already favors its content, but it should be noted that the biggest fans are often the harshest critics. Consider any superhero film -- the diehard fans pick apart inaccuracies and find innumerable faults. What matters and ultimately decides if the diehards approve of an adaptation is whether it is respectful to the spirit of the source material, even if the details are impossible to stay entirely true to. Genius is true to the spirit of Thomas Wolfe -- he is how I imagine the author of Look Homeward, Angel must have been. For the movie to resonate you must have either an appreciation for the works Perkins edited or a prerequisite interest in the questions listed above. I came to the movie with both. I judged the movie as I judge most -- did it accomplish what it set out to do? I believe so. I was inspired to write; I was moved by the friendship; I was scared by the power of pride and love and regret. But it is possible that my love for the film is due to my furnishing of details, my reading into a richness of character that was not spelled out in the film. Herein lies the movie’s greatest weakness: Genius relies on a sympathetic audience. And so what I wish to impress upon you is that if you are of this number you may find the film not only lovable, but moving and worth re-watching. I do not believe Genius should win Best Picture or even be nominated. But I do believe it was dismissed unfairly and that its main criticisms are misplaced. Reviews penned by those who do not have a predilection for the Lost Generation and the works they produced state that a movie about editing is simply not cinematic. Many critics belabored the red pencil circling and underlining shots as demonstrative of the unimpressive and uncinematic act of editing. Peter Debruge says, “it’s nobody’s idea of interesting to watch someone wield his red pencil over the pile of pages.” Genius is about more than editing, but it does successfully illuminate its perils, and the moral crisis editors face in shaping someone else’s work. I will not deny that more people are interested in organized crime than book editing when it comes to sheer volume -- but that does not classify editing as unfit for cinema. “Cinematic” is not a fixed quality -- any story can be cinematic if it is told artfully. The criticism that the process of publishing a book is not cinematic speaks more to narrow-mindedness and generalizations about what the masses find interesting than any failure on the movie’s part. But again, this takes us to the interests the audience must bring to the film. The film itself may not be able to inspire an interest in editing for someone who did not already harbor one. My message is for those who may have been interested in Genius but were deterred by the widespread and unvaried denunciations of the film. You should give Genius a chance (especially if you have read something Perkins’s red pencil touched) and trust that critics’ rejections might have been misplaced. Anyone who has ever loved an author through his or her work should find something to love in this film.
Essays, Screening Room

Comfort Objects

1. My animosity toward musicals began in my youth, when I was still in elementary school in the late 1970s. My hatred of the art form stemmed from mother’s love of it. My mother, Carmella, never watched much television and had little interest in the arts. But whenever The Sound of Music was broadcast on television, she would claim the TV set in our house. No matter how many times she had seen The Sound of Music, she would watch it again and again. Mom knew the words to all of the songs, and she would sit on the couch in the basement family room of our raised-ranch home in Rome, New York, a smile plastered on her face, her dark head bobbing to the music as she hummed or sang along to the tunes. Sometimes my father, my sister, Lisa, or I would humor Mom and watch the 1965 film with her; more often Mom watched it alone, drinking her coffee, smoking her cigarettes and munching on popcorn. But although I appreciated the talent of Julie Andrews and felt some affinity for the von Trapp family, I could never make it through a full screening of the movie. Besides being long, The Sound of Music seemed sentimental and geared toward a female audience; as a ten-year-old boy, I was more interested in watching football, baseball, Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney specials. My interest in the musical waned after the opening sequence with Andrews prancing in a meadow and belting out the title track, with the words: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” If I did sit on the couch next to Mom and attempt to watch the movie with her, I would offer commentary and make fun of the action on screen. “This is so stupid,” I would say. I couldn’t understand why the characters would be talking normally one moment and then suddenly start singing. The gazebo scene with Rolfe and Liesl presents the most annoying example of this “breaking into song.” The two meet in a park and the conversation turns to Liesl’s age. Rolfe tells Liesl, “You’re such a baby.” Liesl replies, “I’m sixteen, what’s such a baby about that?” And then Rolfe begins singing: “You wait little girl, on an empty stage, for fate to turn the light on...” Soon they are dancing inside the gazebo, their figures illuminated by a stylized lighting pattern as rain streaks the windowpanes. It seemed ridiculous to me, and my mother never explained the concept of the musical genre, the goal of telling stories and conveying emotion through dialogue, song and dance. Still, if Mom was watching the movie, I would try to stick around for the song “Maria” so I could sing along loudly, changing the lyrics to, “How do you solve a problem like Carmella?” Mom would become irate and order me out of the family room. One year my father and I escaped the noise of The Sound of Music by hiding out in our mudroom, adjacent to the family room, where we played a game of Nerf basketball while Mom tried to watch her show. But even though the door was closed, we made too much noise, our bodies brushing against the drywall as one of us drove to the rim while the other tried to block the shot. Mom hopped off the couch, marched across the room and banged on the door. “Cut it out in there,” she yelled. I don’t know why I resented the movie so much or felt compelled to disrupt her evening’s entertainment. I should have sacrificed my time and watched the film quietly with her, trying to learn from it and appreciate what Mom saw on screen; instead I made it difficult for her to enjoy the experience. I guess I couldn’t accept her need for the repeated viewing. I would argue with her about it. “Mom, you’ve seen it a million times. Why do you need to see it again?” She would only say, “Because I want to. That’s all.” I didn’t understand at the time the lure of familiar works of popular culture and the comfort they bestow. The Sound of Music touched my mother in a special way and gave her momentary pleasure. For only a few hours one night a year the film made her forget her worries about finances or her unhappy marriage to my father. I have since discovered how we often return to our favorite songs, movies and books, seeking contentment or an escape from our daily lives. For me it’s the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. I screen it every year during the Christmas season. I know all of the dialogue before it’s spoken, and my family gets annoyed with me over my repeated viewing. But just like Mom with The Sound of Music, I can’t stop myself from watching the saga of George Bailey’s frustrated existence in Bedford Falls -- no matter how many times I have seen it before. One of my favorite moments in the film comes when George proclaims to Mary Hatch (Reed): I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long. But George never left Bedford Falls, becoming trapped by having to run the Bailey Building and Loan business after the death of his father. Growing up in the small city of Rome, tucked in the Mohawk Valley in central New York state, I could relate to George’s desire to flee the provincial setting of Bedford Falls, to explore the  world and to pursue his ambitions. I recognized the same theme in Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical, coming-of-age novel Look Homeward, Angel, as the protagonist, Eugene Gant, sought to experience life beyond the hills of  Altamont, a fictionalized version of Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I carried the same urges as George and Eugene when I left Rome on a cold October morning in 1994 -- my used, silver hatchback loaded with my possessions -- and drove southbound to Florida, where I would stay with a friend of my aunt’s and search for a job in journalism or the Sunshine State’s burgeoning film industry. I had received my master’s degree in film and video a year earlier and wanted to travel the U.S. while starting my professional life. When I was a bachelor in my twenties and thirties, It’s a Wonderful Life provided emotional succor when loneliness consumed me at Christmastime; George Bailey gave me hope that it wasn’t too late for me to fall in love -- that I could find my own version of Mary Hatch, get married and start a family. This didn’t happen until much later in my life, but the movie always lifted my spirits and helped me to withstand the hard times while I remained unattached. And the enduring lessons about the importance of family, friendship and faith make It’s a Wonderful Life worthy of repeated viewing. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sums up the movie’s theme with his inscription in a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- left behind for George to read -- “Dear George: Remember no man is failure who has friends.” 2. After my mother remarried, and before lung cancer claimed her life in 2011, I watched The Sound of Music with her at her new home with my stepfather, Bill. My sister and I had bought Mom the DVD for Christmas or her birthday one year, sometime in the early 2000s. I kept quiet while I sat on the couch next to Mom, glancing over at her occasionally, like when Christopher Plummer and the von Trapp family sang “Edelweiss.” Even though so much time had passed, the joy on Mom’s face resembled the delight she had exhibited when I was a child. Her face still looked the same while watching the movie, and this time I didn’t spoil her happiness.
Essays, Screening Room

Screenwriting 101: What Fiction Writers Learn from Star Wars

For the last twelve years I have taught fiction writing at Delta College in Michigan. For six of those years I have also taught Introduction to Screenwriting as part of Delta’s Film Production program. Arguably, screenwriters and fiction writers are going about the same thing, even if in different forms: they are trying to tell a good story. I certainly can’t say that the ways I teach screenwriting and fiction writing are universal, but I have noticed that, while the two courses essentially focus on storytelling, my pedagogical approaches for each are very different. When I teach fiction, I usually focus on the “craft” of fiction. I use words and phrases like “conflict,” “character development,” “backstory,” “interior landscape,” and “dialogue.” When it comes to plot, though, I find myself saying something cryptic like, “Plot comes out of character. Whatever your protagonist does must be true to his or her character.” It’s good advice, I suppose, but it doesn’t really help students understand what makes for a solid plot. When I talk about fiction writing, the vibe is mystical: “You don’t need to know where you’re going. Just sit down and write. Discover what you have to say sentence by sentence. Let the journey surprise you.” Sometimes I’ll even quote E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I love that simile, but the more realistic side of me notes that it’s also a perfect situation for crashing and going nowhere. Screenwriting often seems so much more practical and story-oriented. Right out of the gate, I am talking with students about the importance of movie-mapping. Much more time is spent on the plotting of the story to make certain that “something happens” and that the movie is always escalating tension and conflict as it moves toward the climax. For such a modern form of storytelling – barely 125 years old – screenwriting seems to draw much more of its understanding of plot from Plato’s dissection of narrative structure. Before my students begin to learn screenplay format, I first ask them to consider their film’s major dramatic question, or MDQ. In screenwriting, the major dramatic question is a yes-or-no question that is answered by the climax. For instance, in the 1977 classic Star Wars: A New Hope, the MDQ would be, “Will Luke blow up the Death Star?” Before ever writing, my students are encouraged to know their MDQ and to know the answer. They have to know what they are writing towards in order to make every scene lead the audience there naturally and believably. To understand how movie structure works, we talk about a movie’s Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, and Climax. Screenwriters are encouraged to know their ending before anything else, which seems very different from all of that driving blind in the fog business. Star Wars: A New Hope provides a good example of the rest of the plot points. The inciting incident of a movie is the event that is necessary to get the movie going. Usually the first ten minutes of a film focus on character and situation introduction, but right about ten minutes in, something happens that calls the protagonist to his or her quest. In Star Wars, the inciting incident occurs when the droids escape Princess Leia’s ship with the plans to the Death Star inside R2-D2. (Notice how the inciting incident already alludes to the MDQ.) If the droids don’t escape Leia’s ship, then we don’t have Star Wars…or at least not the Star Wars that we know. Right around 25 to 30 pages into the script, the screenwriter must begin to think about Plot Point 1. This is a moment in the movie that makes action on the part of the protagonist necessary. In Star Wars, Luke isn’t really sure what he’s doing with the droids. He’s chasing R2-D2 rather than making his own choices. Even when Ben asks Luke to join him, Luke says that he can’t leave his uncle’s farm. It’s only when Luke races back to the farm to find his uncle and aunt dead at the hands of the Empire that he can commit to his quest. Nothing is holding Luke back, and his hatred toward the Empire has been fueled. About halfway through the script, screenwriters need to give thought to the Mid-Point. The Mid-Point often shows us a strength in the character that we have not seen up until this moment. In the first half of Star Wars, Luke takes a backseat to the much more interesting Ben Kenobi and Han Solo. It’s only when Luke is free of them that he can truly shine. Rescuing Princess Leia, Luke faces a daunting chasm. Storm troopers are slowly opening the door behind him. Across the chasm, stormtroopers fire upon him and Leia. Oh, and as you’ll remember, the bridge across the chasm is no longer functional. Probably unknowingly using the Force, Luke flawlessly tosses a grappling hook up to an overhead pipe and swings himself and Leia to safety. He does this on his own. That’s the movie’s midpoint, which helps the audience believe what happens in the climax because it reveals that strength of character that the audience had yet to see. Finally, to escalate conflict and to make success that much more difficult, a screenwriter has to think about Plot Point 2, which is a major setback to the protagonist. In Star Wars, the setback happens when Ben is killed by Darth Vader. It’s a major blow to Luke, and it makes their entire mission against the Death Star seem that much more hopeless. Watch nearly any movie, and right around three-quarters into it, something really bad will happen to the main character. That event serves to escalate tension and keep the audience uncertain. The rest of the movie now plays out toward answering the MDQ. If the movie has been plotted well, the climax is not only satisfying but believable. It’s my belief that no novelist would be hurt by taking a screenwriting course or by studying a screenwriting text, not for jumping ship and becoming a screenwriter, but to understand storytelling from a new vantage-point. At Delta College, the students who take creative writing courses represent a small but passionate pool. They often take every creative writing course available. In Screenwriting, I will sometimes get students who want to adapt a novel that they are working on into a screenplay. More often than not, they actually end up learning what they have to do to make their novel work as a novel. It is the strict attention to plot involved with screenwriting that helps them see how they can make their story work better in prose form. At the end of the class they’ll tell me, “This class helped me understand my novel so much better, and now I’m going to rewrite the entire thing.”
Essays, Screening Room

Where Legless Men Run and Water Burns: On Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland

Hollywood is no place for nonsense. That’s presumably why Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Disney’s 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland, features organizing principles absent from Lewis Carroll’s books: Alice’s search for a “chronometer” -- a time travel device that’s also a pacemaker for Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, with mutton chops, German accent, and mustache) -- paired with a search for the missing family of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, eyes painted yellow like a gecko). For the story to make sense, director James Bobin needed a proper quest with proper villains attached; most of all, he needed a linear story that unfolds in time. But time is almost totally meaningless in Carroll’s Wonderland. On the contrary, a timeless, dreamy indolence prevails. In Carroll’s books, there isn’t any story in the conservative Hollywood sense, and there’s certainly no systematic antagonist to satisfy a Hollywood film editor. The only villain in Carroll’s Wonderland is overzealous conscience, and the means available to combat it are wholly stylistic, a unique brand of literary anarchy that owes much to the repressive Victorian era: Carroll was born in the teeth of the Evangelical religious revival that defined it. As Josef Altholz writes, “The most important thing to remember about religion in Victorian England is that there was an awful lot of it.” Threatened by the advance of science and secularism in the 18th century, clergymen of the 19th fought to defend the old moral order by clamping down firmly on new ideas. Lewis Carroll’s father was a reverend and archdeacon in this reactionary Evangelical movement, which also conscripted Carroll himself. Biographer Derek Hudson writes that “it is beyond dispute that Lewis Carroll modeled his outward character largely on his authoritarian father.” Carroll was ordained a clergyman like his father and his colleagues in mathematics at Oxford. But this proper “outward character” had a rebellious counterpart in an inner character that authored puckish, nonsensical books. Verbal humor was from childhood Carroll’s favored means of breaking rules. When he was 13, he wrote a satirical poem called “Rules and Regulations” and another called “My Fairy.” His “fairy” was an inner voice of conscience whose basic message was You mustn’t...do anything. This was the beginning of Carroll’s career undermining authority figures by impersonating their voices, a strategy that would culminate in hilarious creations like the King and Queen of Hearts, the Duchess, and the Mock Turtle. Their lunacy derives not so much from disregard for rules as from rigid observation of rules that don’t make any sense. The system of Wonderland runs on madness and everybody living there abides by it. Thus the Cheshire Cat judiciously assures Alice that she needn’t bother avoiding mad people in Wonderland. “Oh, you can’t help that,” he says, “we’re all mad here.” Consider how the Duchess, depicted by 19th-century illustrator John Tenniel as a man in a squared Elizabethan headdress, nurses her baby in a kitchen full of pepper. “I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes,” she sings. And then this: 'Here! You may nurse it a bit, if you like!' the Duchess said to Alice, flinging the baby at her as she spoke. 'I must go and get ready to play croquet with the Queen,' and she hurried out of the room. The cook threw a frying-pan after her as she went, but it just missed her. It’s telling that the insane Duchess’s favorite word, as Carroll later observes, is “moral.” It is her devotion to a crooked dogma that makes her seem unhinged: an infant is not allowed to sneeze; a game of croquet outweighs the baby’s needs. Invitations to the Queen’s officious game of croquet, meanwhile, arrive in large wax-sealed letters, whence footmen read them aloud. To make all this ceremony even more preposterous, the game is ultimately played with flamingoes and hedgehogs instead of mallets and balls. The courtiers’ fastidious efforts at croquet quickly bring about nothing but chaos as the animate balls, mallets, and wickets wander off. The game is mad, not the players. Sigmund Freud said that good jokes free us from the prohibitions of reserved, polite society, and Carroll sets us all free: authority figures so corrupt and ridiculous can’t enforce their prohibitions. The Queen of Hearts, Carroll says, has “only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small” -- and that is to cry, “Off with his head!” She and the King, who eventually serves as the most maddening trial judge in all literature, are a perfect picture of the excess and irrationality of a neurotic conscience. Alice accordingly rejects their corrupt judgments; when the Queen hysterically demands Alice’s head, Alice silences her with this assessment of her moral code: “Nonsense!” The Cheshire Cat is one of the few characters who seems in on the joke of Wonderland. So is the Gryphon, who doesn’t fear “that savage Queen.” In fact, he says, she’s “fun.” “It’s all her fancy, that,” says the Gryphon in his candid patois. “They never executes nobody, you know.” The Gryphon pronounces a similar verdict on his companion, the sorrowful Mock Turtle, whose name derives from a Victorian dish called “mock turtle soup.” “It’s all his fancy, that,” says the Gryphon. “He hasn’t got no sorrow, you know.” In Wonderland, sorrow is just another preposterous rule. Carroll illustrates this point when Alice asks the source of the Mock Turtle’s woe and receives this sniffling and incomplete explanation: “Once, I was a real Turtle.” His sorrow derives, it seems, from an affectation, a “mock sorrow” to which he feels unaccountably obliged. But the reader recognizes instantly the absurdity of this obligation. We have as little to fear from mock sorrow as we do from the Queen’s mock executions. Throughout the books, it’s Alice who is the principal skeptic of Wonderland’s regulations and the spurious sorrow, guilt, and fear they entrain. By appointing a child the cynosure of wisdom in his books, Carroll broke with the standard approach to children’s literature in Victorian times. Victorian children’s literature treated children as eminently corruptible and sought to provide them with stern moral instruction. Carroll used Alice like a mini-Friedrich Nietzsche to do the opposite -- to critique the bad morals of adults -- and as a sort of straight man in a comic routine. She points out absurdity so that the reader can not only appreciate its latent social commentary, but enjoy it, revel in it, laugh at it. Nonsense is a relief to the child from the bullying strictures of reality, but it’s perhaps an even bigger relief to adults, who suffer even more of reality’s insults and constraints, and who have lost the childhood method of defying reality through nonsense. Lewis Carroll, however, seemed to have recovered the pleasurable nonsense available to children by retaining in himself the ability to be a child. As is well-known, Carroll composed the earliest version of the Alice stories to entertain a real little girl, 10-year-old Alice Liddell, daughter of a lexicographer of ancient Greek at Oxford. His unorthodox friendships with Alice and other little girls have led some scholars to call him a pedophile; the intensity of Carroll’s interest in the Liddell girls may indeed have precipitated the break with the Liddell family that eventually ensued. Regardless of the ultimate propriety of these relationships, Carroll’s urge and ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is inseparable from his artistic vision. Among the many rules that Wonderland warps to the breaking point is that which divides big and small, adult and child. When Alice literally grows and shrinks in Wonderland, she seems to illustrate Carroll’s wish, and his corresponding ability, to toggle between child and adult by an act of mental flexion or extension. Age, like time, does not exist in Wonderland. Carroll’s personal interest in the world of childhood, his professional interest in symbolic logic, and his rebellion against over-finicky rules all came together in nonsense verse like “Jabberwocky,” which famously begins, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Seth Lerer writes, “[T]he idea of nonsense as a force of the imagination, of nonsense as a challenge to the logic of adulthood and the laws of civil life -- this was a new idea in Victorian England. The masters of that nonsense were, of course, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.” Carroll’s nonsense has indeed been influential and long-lived; it gave English the portmanteau word “chortle” and inspired The Beatles's famous song “I Am the Walrus.” John Lennon told the BBC that his 1967 nonsense song refers to “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. A century after Carroll made war on the Victorians, Lennon channeled his nonsensical idol to continue the very same culture war, to relieve us of our mock sorrows. It is this joyous relief and freedom that resounds throughout Wonderland. Adults continue to return to Lewis Carroll in order to retrieve what Freud called “the lost laughter of childhood.” Unlike J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, or A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, Lewis Carroll grants no asylum to wistful acknowledgements that childhood must come to an end. The lost laughter of childhood needn’t be lost forever, he seems to say. Whether Hollywood, with all its starched conventions and obligations to the Almighty Dollar, can ever retrieve the lost laughter as well as Carroll did is an open question. The Alice movie currently in theaters now doesn’t really aim to. It peddles instead a familiar spectacle, manipulating the audience’s attention, which suited my kids just fine. This grown-up, though, finds more sense in Carroll’s nonsense. Maybe that’s why Carroll’s books are still in print. Nothing funnier has ever been written.
Screening Room

Living Clichéd Lives: On Hollywood Biopics

1. Don Cheadle directs, co-writes, and stars in Miles Ahead, a new movie that strives admirably to slip the frayed straitjacket of the musician biopic genre. You know the drill. Person discovers he or she is blessed with an unusual musical gift, starts small, eventually rockets to stardom, learns it’s lonely at the top and turns to drink and/or drugs, suffers breakups and breakdowns, gets groove back, and then either (a) dies broke and alone, or (b) enjoys a career rebirth and lives happily ever after. The (a) sub-category is by far the less populous, probably because movie executives believe audiences have no stomach for dark endings. To understand how wrong they are, consider 1984’s Amadeus, which won eight Oscars and was a box-office smash even though it ended with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) getting tossed into an unmarked mass grave for paupers. The life and the music, not the death, turn out to be the things that matter. Don Cheadle yearns to enter the (a) sub-category with Miles Ahead. He does this through an ingeniously counter-intuitive artistic choice: he frames the story in the late-1970s, when one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time was not making music. To sweeten the conceit, Cheadle’s Miles Davis is not suffering from a conventional creative block, an artist powerless to express the things boiling inside him. With a scowl, he offers this refreshing explanation for his silence: “I didn’t have nothin’ to say.” That explanation is delivered to a Rolling Stone writer named Dave Brill, played by Ewan McGregor, who bangs on Davis’s locked door one day hoping to get an exclusive story about the great man’s silence and self-imposed exile. This insertion of a brand-name white actor smells of a studio decision to tone down the movie’s blackness in the interest of selling tickets. At the Berlin Film Festival, Cheadle acknowledged that “having a white actor in this film turned out to be a financial imperative.” When the remark caused an uproar, Cheadle added, “No one said specifically, ‘You must hire this one actor to make this happen.’ But there was a kind of list of actors that would make the money go.” McGregor does his best to turn this into a lopsided buddy movie, and he nearly succeeds. An uneasy bond grows between the ambitious journalist and the cynical musician, given a boost when the former helps the latter score some high-grade cocaine in a Columbia University dorm room, the movie’s funniest scene. To Cheadle’s credit, his Miles is no god; he may be a genius, but he’s also a chauvinist, a womanizer, a coke head, and nasty to go with it. Among the revelations Brill pulls out of Miles is that his heart is with the “innovators,” who he pointedly identifies as Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky -- not Charlie "Bird" Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk. Miles, we come to find out, has not been totally silent. He has recorded a tape that he refuses to turn over to his record label, and much of the movie is taken up with the maniacal protection, theft, and recovery of this MacGuffin. It would be a spoiler to reveal what’s on this coveted spool of tape, but it’s no spoiler to say that the movie’s incessant cutting between the 1950s and the '70s gets disorienting. Or that the movie’s soundtrack -- consisting of re-imaginings of Miles’s music -- will make you appreciate just how great Miles’s early recordings will always be. In the end, Cheadle succumbs to the rebirth cliché. Without any valid explanation, Davis is back onstage with a new band, his creative block vanquished, playing the funk- and rock-fuelled fusion that sounds, a bit anachronistically, like Bitches Brew from 1970. It may have been the only way for Cheadle to go, but it feels like a capitulation, a tacked-on triumphal ending designed to please those studio executives who insisted the movie needed a white star if it was going to succeed at the box office. They’re the same kind of studio suits who decided to cast the fair-skinned Dominican/Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina, then tricked her out with a prosthetic nose and blackface. Weren’t there any black actresses qualified to play an incendiary black artist? As usual, the studio suits got it wrong. Miles Ahead, for all its lofty intentions, wound up in safe sub-category (b), where it so far has failed to connect with audiences. 2. The title I Saw the Light says everything you need to know about the new Hank Williams biopic. It says that this treatment of one of country music’s most gifted and tortured performers will favor the sunshine over the shadows, the uplift over the appalling undertow of a life that ended at the age of 29, booze-soaked and pill-addled, alone in the back seat of a Cadillac on the way to yet another gig. I would argue that Hank Williams was country music’s only existentialist, a genius who was able to mold the everyday worlds of rural poverty and honky-tonk revelry into a vision that life offers neither meaning nor any chance of escape, only a promise of fleeting, bawdy, delirious respites -- always followed by more loneliness and pain and drudgery. He painted this vivid portrait with the simplest of tools: the whippoorwill, the distant freight train, the cotton field, the dancing spree, as in: We’ll do all the law’s allowin’, tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin’, settin’ the woods on fire... The English actor Tom Hiddleston works hard to animate lanky, jaunty, haunted Hank Williams, even singing the signature songs, but his earnest renderings sound thin and watery compared to Williams’s soulful yearning. The movie looks terrific but it sounds like cover-song karaoke. The tone of this two-hour slog is set during the very first frames -- a long shot of Williams seated on a stool in a hot spotlight, singing “Cold, Cold Heart” as the camera circles pointlessly around him. It’s meant to be atmospheric, a portrait of a man alone in a crowded room, but it’s just dull. What follows has all the narrative momentum of a mail train, a series of stops and starts as we watch Williams tear through a string of wives while drinking, womanizing, doing uppers and coke and eventually morphine for a painful case of spina bifida. When he gets to the top, he pines predictably for the good old days as an up-and-comer: “Sometimes I wish I was back at WSFA making $12 a week and knowing who my friends were.” And here’s Hank in what passes for a retrospective moment about his love life: “I’m a pro at making a mess of things.” The screenplay, by director Marc Abraham, is based on Hank Williams: The Biography, by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen. But the movie gives us no sense of Williams’s origins or the sources of his inspiration, from country radio broadcasts to gospel music to Rufus Payne, the black bluesman who taught him to play the guitar. Given the facts of Williams’s early death, Abraham had little choice but to make this a sub-category (a) movie. Even Hollywood can’t dress up a 29-year-old corpse in the back seat of a Cadillac. Some musician biopics are saved by the music. Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Doors come to mind, with Sissy Spacek and Val Kilmer doing their own singing while inhabiting the souls of Loretta Lynn and Jim Morrison. But I Saw the Light is not in that class. 3. Neither is Born to Be Blue, the new biopic of the gorgeous, doomed jazz trumpeter and junkie Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Robert Budreau, with music by the jazz trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and some pleasingly breathless singing by Hawke, this movie, like Miles Ahead, at least tries to break out of the genre’s straitjacket. It does this primarily by refusing to condemn Baker’s heroin addiction. “It makes me happy,” he says unapologetically. “I love to get high.” When he’s high, he adds, “the notes get wider, not just longer, and I can get inside of every note.” The movie jumps around in time, and back and forth between color and black-and-white. One moment we’re on the set of a 1960s black-and-white film biography of Baker -- a biopic within a biopic! -- then we’re at Birdland in the '50s, then we’re in L.A. in the '60s. Budreau manages to keep things flowing by turning the movie into a story of dual recoveries: after a vicious beating by drug dealers who knock out his front teeth, Baker must re-learn to play his instrument with painful dentures that keep slipping; and with his soul mate, an aspiring actress named Jane (Carmen Ejogo), he must try to overcome his inner demons and his craving for heroin. He nearly succeeds -- until the night of his comeback performance at Birdland. High as a Georgia pine, Baker knocks the house out cold, including a skeptical Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and a supportive Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard). The movie ends with a written coda, informing us that Baker went off to Europe after the Birdland gig, where he continued to shoot heroin and made some of his best music. (We’re not told that Baker fell out of a window in an Amsterdam hotel in 1988 and died at the age of 59, his veins humming with heroin and cocaine.) In the world of the musician biopic, this passes for a brave, non-judgmental and unconventional ending. 4. As I watched these movies, it began to occur to me that maybe the problem is not that people keep making clichéd movies about musicians; maybe the problem is that musicians keep living clichéd lives that can’t be made into anything but clichéd movies. Prince just died of an apparent opioid painkiller overdose at the age of 57. Arguably, the only people who lead more clichéd lives than musicians are writers, who discover early on that it’s lonely at the bottom, it’s worse in the mid-list, and, for the precious few who make it there, it’s even worse at the top. But with musicians, at least there’s music to leaven the loneliness and add some sizzle to the clichés. Which is why these biopics will keep getting made as long as the sun continues to cross the sky. The inevitability of this struck me when I got word that a Mötley Crüe biopic, in the works for years, is finally going to be released this summer. It’s called The Dirt, which was the title of the band’s salacious 2001 memoir. If the source material is any indication, the movie will be a non-stop mudbath of depravity. But the true depravity here is that men who are eligible for Social Security continue to wear Spandex while mounting a “retirement tour.” Then I stumbled on some YouTube videos of Guns N' Roses performing at the recent Coachella Festival. There on the stage, ensconced on a throne with his damaged left foot in a cast, sat a bloated Axl Rose, the original bad boy straight outta Central Nowhere, Indiana. This was not the priapic flame-haired dervish lionized by John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” from his collection Pulphead. The Axl Rose at Coachella was a caricature of his younger self, immobilized and squalling, a fat Elvis for the new millennium. Surely a biopic is in the works. Based on that Coachella show, there’s no way it will have a happy ending.
Screening Room

The Devil Works in Mysterious Ways

The Witches, Stacy Schiff's novelistic examination of Salem in 1692, reveals how religious literalism and paranoia was baked into the New England soil. The first capital crime of the colonist's legal code was idolatry. The second, Schiff notes, was witchcraft: “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.” Less than a year after Schiff’s book comes The Witch, the directorial debut of Robert Eggers. Labeled a “New England Folktale” and set in 1630, The Witch feels like an apocryphal precursor to the mania in Salem. The film begins with a town council banishing a Puritan family, likely based on the unidentified sins of William, the father. While the family soon appears happy enough on their own small, secluded farm, they are manacled by faith. The family does not simply believe in God; they fear the divine. Prayers are laments. God, impatient and unkind, is watching. William, it seems, has recreated God in his own image, imbued him with fire and vengeance, and not a small amount of interest in their farm and clan. We never learn much about the community from which the family has been cleaved, but we can assume that a literalist becomes even more literal when he reads sacred text alone. That said, William is more eager than evil. He casts judgments rather than aspersions. He truly loves his wife, Katherine, along with his children. His young son, Caleb, is industrious, a good hunting companion. Twins named Mercy and Jonas are mischievous, and claim to communicate with one of the family’s goats, named Black Phillip. Mischief is a precursor to misery. Early in the film, Thomasin, the family's teenage daughter, is playing peekaboo with the family's newborn, Samuel. She closes her eyes, and the boy vanishes in a moment. A dark figure shadows through the forest with the baby, leading to a shocking scene of midnight ritual. Although it might be a product of its 17th-century setting, The Witch feels like a film that we should not see; events that belong on parchment, that are too legendary for moving images. Anthony Lane sees the farm's setting “on the verge of a forest” as the “classic habitation of a fairy tale.” He compares the film to the stories of the Brothers Grimm or the Venice-set Don’t Look Now. Both comparisons are merited, but there is a distinctly American tinge to The Witch, and it is not merely the fact that tales of baby-snatching witches were also a continental staple. Schiff writes that “As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures.” European witches flew; their displays of power were more vulgar. In contrast, “Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last for three years. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest. They stole babies and penises. The Massachusetts witch disordered the barn and the kitchen.” The devil works in mysterious ways. The devil in The Witch has his eyes on young Thomasin. In one scene after the newborn’s disappearance, Mercy and Jonas heckle their older sister near a river. Thomasin takes their bait and pantomimes as an actual witch, documenting the hellish actions she would take with children. The performance is too perfect: the twins know it, and the viewer knows it. Yet Eggers has more of a story to tell. The Witch is purely a New England tale, a descendent of Nathaniel Hawthorne. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, Nathaniel Hawthorne returned to his hometown of Salem. There he wrote “Young Goodman Brown” among other stories. A tale of a man discovering the “fiend” in his own “breast,” “Young Goodman Brown” reads as the product of Hawthorne’s own cloistered life. In an 1837 letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hawthorne wrote “By some witchcraft or other, for I really cannot assign any reasonable cause, I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.” Malcolm Cowley thought Hawthorne’s “self-imprisonment” in Salem was an essential time in his artistic life; those years were “his term of apprenticeship and his early travels, corresponding to the years that other American writers of his time spent traveling in Europe or making an overland expedition to Oregon or sailing round Cape Horn on a whaler...Left alone, he traveled into himself and worked or idled under his own supervision. It was the Salem years that deepened and individualized his talent.” “Young Goodman Brown” demonstrates that talent. It is one of those tales anthologized into simplicity, a staple of American Literature high school reading lists. Yet the story remains clever and rather chilling. Brown sets off on a journey that “must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise.” His wife of three months, Faith, is worried. She has good reason to be; Brown is heading for the wilderness. The story never hides his “present evil purpose,” and that forms the first connection with The Witch. New England horror is less about surprise and more about the slow burn of suffering. In Hollywood, horror sneaks into your home, leaps from behind doors; in New England, horror festers in your soul. Brown meets the devil in the forest. The path he has taken was lined with the “gloomiest trees,” which “closed immediately behind” his entry. The devil knows his grandfather and father; in fact, “I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman.” Of course, this is typical Salem fare: the devil is in each of us. Yet Hawthorne, like Leo Tolstoy, remains long enough in the moments of his stories to force us to look deeper. Brown continues alone into the forest, which becomes transformed. Trees creak, wild beats howl, and even the “wind tolled like a distant church bell.” It seemed as if “all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.” That shift -- “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” -- weds Hawthorne to The Witch. If Thomasin is the potential vessel for evil, then her father opens the door for the devil. William’s lie about the disappearance of his wife’s silver wine cup becomes an act of betrayal. Whereas at the start of the film he might resemble, in stature and temperament, the father from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, he might best be considered Goodman Brown. The burning light of God has blinded him to the evil in front of his face. As Hawthorne’s tale enters its final quarter, Brown becomes maniacal as the “benighted wilderness pealing in awful harmony together.” He discovers what resembles a witches’ Sabbath in the forest, lead by the devil. Brown and his wife are about to be the newest converts, ready to be baptized in sin. Yet in a move so common in such tales, Brown finds himself “amid calm night and solitude” in the tranquil forest, with no sign of the fiery ritual remaining. Hawthorne’s extended description of the dark Sabbath shows that its reality was present in Brown’s soul -- the only place that matters. In The Witch, characters carry the forest to their farm, their beds, their hearts, and then return to that darkness for more. Unlike Brown, what they experience is fully real, quite bloody, and surprisingly disturbing. The Witch is worth watching for a new approach to old horror: the feeling that we have heard this story before, and that is exactly why it scares us so much.
Screening Room

And the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…

It turns out the novel is alive and well and living in, of all places, Hollywood. Who would have thought? As recently as 1998, all five finalists for the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay drew on novels for their source material, but by 2014 not a single Oscar nomination went to a screenplay adapted from a novel. Last year, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was the lone work of fiction in a field of sources dominated by biography, autobiography, and, weirdly, a short film. This trend sent me into Mr. Gloomy mode last year when I wrote: (T)he novel is now in retreat -- and not only in Hollywood -- as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a "true" story (or, better yet, something "based on a true story") over fictional stories. That’s because "true" stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination. What a difference a year makes. This year, for some unknowable reason, Hollywood screenwriters mined novels -- from the shamelessly commercial to the highly literary -- for four of the five adapted screenplays that garnered Oscar nominations. (The fifth nomination went to the team of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Big Short.) What happened? Did some pixie slip a vial of smart powder into the L.A drinking water? Did someone in Hollywood start a book club for screenwriters? Since there’s no way to parse the reading habits of Tinseltown, let’s cut straight to the nominees. Here, in chronological order of their release dates, are the four movies with scripts based on novels that are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on Feb. 28: 1. Brooklyn It seems that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín (pronounced Col-um toe-BEAN) wrote this 2009 novel with sepia ink -- and without a worry that his pacing and hushed tone might put some readers to sleep. But readers who stick with the novel will be rewarded by a story that accumulates a fierce power. It’s the story of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey, a plain Irish girl who leaves her mother and sister in the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy and emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, a world of shocking sights and sounds and customs, where she overcomes crippling homesickness and haltingly makes her way toward financial independence and even manages to find a decent man who loves her. But a return trip to Ireland after her sister’s sudden death will threaten to rip apart Eilis’s fragile chance at happiness. This is no potboiler, obviously. The drama takes place inside Eilis’s head and heart. How to turn such interiority into a compelling movie? Mainly by hiring talented actors who can convey deep emotions through the slightest facial gesture or body movement. Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sur-sha Row-nin) was an inspired choice to play Eilis, and her portrayal of a plain young woman’s blossoming has justly won a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar. Equally important to the movie’s success was the choice of screenwriter. The mission of a writer who sets out to transport words from page to screen is both simple and devilishly difficult: be always faithful to the spirit of the novel without ever being slavish to it. For this reason, it’s usually better for a novelist to stay in the wings when the screenwriting assignment gets doled out. Most novelists are too close to their own material not to be enslaved by it. Tóibín never considered adapting his own novel, instead suggesting to the producer, Finola Dwyer, that she hire Nick Hornby, who is both an accomplished novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and screenwriter (An Education, Wild). “And I soon realized that nobody wanted me around,” Tóibín told The New York Times. “Nick was doing it. He didn’t ask any questions, never even got in touch. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable. It was the only way it could work. He took the central spine of the novel -- the romantic story and the immigration, the two things that really matter -- and left other things off to the side. But he wasn’t trying to tell a new story. He was faithful to the book within the constraints of film.” And that’s why the movie works every bit as well as the novel. 2. Carol In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained faithful to the book within the constraints of film. The result is a spellbinding script for a movie that was renamed Carol -- just one of numerous instances when the movie strays from the letter of the novel without betraying its spirit. Like Hornby, Nagy left out some things and changed others but preserved the central spine of the novel -- the story of forbidden love between a radiant but unfulfilled suburban housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a plain New York City shop girl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Nagy has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer into an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled time sequences. But what she left intact, most crucially, is Highsmith’s unhurried unfolding of the romantic love between the two women, a story that plays out against a backdrop of impeccable 1950s period details, from cars and fashions to interiors and even the way women move. Nagy’s writing has certainly benefited from the high quality of the production it serves. The movie is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett for Best Actress, Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and the cinematographer Edward Lachman, who gives an appropriately gauzy look to a story about infatuation amid fuzzy moral boundaries. 3. Room This movie is proof that most novelists should follow Tóibín’s lead and leave it to others to adapt their work for the screen. In adapting her own novel, Room, Emma Donoghue made the mistake of following the text almost to the letter -- then leaving out the wrong parts, the very parts that would have given the movie heft and drama. Both novel and movie open with an enthralling setup -- a woman has been imprisoned in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed for seven years, where she gave birth five years ago to a boy named Jack. The revelation that this loving, seemingly happy pair are actually being held prisoners by a monster named Nick is handled, in novel and movie, with supreme assurance. It’s perfectly horrible. The trouble begins when Ma (Brie Larson) helps Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escape, and suddenly they’re thrust into the outside world that’s utterly foreign to the boy -- and far from welcoming to his traumatized mother. In the novel, they’re hounded by the ravenous news media and by medical professionals who are less than sympathetic to their ordeal and its lingering effects. This tension is gone from the movie, and instead we get Ma coming unglued and fighting with her own mother (Joan Allen), while her father (William H. Macy) puts in a pointless cameo. Jack, meanwhile, wanders through something that passes for healing. It’s all drift. I have a hunch that a screenwriter who wasn’t so close to the source material would not have made these missteps. Just a hunch.  4. The Martian Andy Weir went to work as a computer programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He’s also a self-proclaimed space nerd who’s into relativistic physics, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. How do you spell geek? In this case, you spell it n-o-v-e-l-i-s-t. Weir’s first novel, The Martian, became a bestseller and fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production with Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Watney, a botanist on a Mars mission who gets abandoned by his crew when a freak storm blows up and they mistakenly believe he’s dead. And voilà, we have a high concept: Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Red Planet. Actually, Weir’s book is less a novel than a blueprint for a movie. Just as no one will question Weir’s scientific bona fides -- he wrote his own software to make the physics of space travel as accurate as possible -- no one will accuse him of being a graceful writer. The novel is full of junior high prose like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.” But people don’t read books like this for the artful prose; they read them for the ingenious setup and the brisk storytelling. Screenwriter Drew Goddard has connected the dots from Weir’s novel to create a script that’s seamless and irresistible. The movie winds up being superior to the novel because it’s comfortable being what it is -- a thriller that manipulates the audience without shame, an entertainment that wants nothing more than to please its audience at all times. You can hear Goddard pulling the levers -- or is that the sound of him painting by numbers? -- but you’re having too much fun to care. This is partly due to the deft direction of Ridley Scott, who is most at home in outer space, and strong performances by Damon and a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Weir’s book is a novel that wants to be a movie. The movie is content to be a big, fat, satisfying, popcorn thrill-fest. What’s wrong with being comfortable inside your own skin? And the Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to… Phyllis Nagy for CAROL!!! Now that justice has been served, for once, I’m hoping that when Nagy gets up onstage and finishes thanking her agent and her producer and her mom and Todd and Cate and Rooney and her Jack Russell terrier, she’ll have the decency to hoist her statue to the heavens and give a shout-out to the novelist who made this terrific movie possible -- that princess of darkness, the diabolically great Patricia Highsmith. Image Credit: Flickr/Dave_B_.
Essays, Screening Room

The Filmable Miss Highsmith

1. “Oh god, how this story emerges from my bones!” After her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Patricia Highsmith was under pressure from her publisher and agent to go back to the well and write another “novel of suspense.” But Highsmith, who could be mulish, had different ideas. She had taken a job as a sales clerk in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas rush in 1948 -- publication of Strangers was still months away and she was strapped for cash -- and in that unlikely setting she received the spark for a new novel. As she would recall 40 years later: One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted toward the doll counter with a look of uncertainty -- should she buy a doll or something else? -- and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light...It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision. The plain clerk had fallen in love with the radiant woman in the fur coat. Highsmith went home that night and, head still swimming, dashed off eight pages of ideas, plot, and story that would become her second novel, The Price of Salt. The book astonishes on several levels. First, no one gets murdered, a rarity for a Highsmith novel. Second, it tells the story of a wealthy wife and mother named Carol Aird and a much younger clerk named Therese Belivet (pronounced the French way, Terez) who fall in love with each other and embark on a scandalous, sexually charged cross-country road trip that carries strong undertones of mother-daughter incest -- in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, the year the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and three years before Vladimir Nabokov gave us his account of Humbert Humbert cavorting with his beloved nymphet on their own scandalous cross-country road trip. Third, Carol and Therese are shadowed by a private detective, who tape-records their pillow talk, damning evidence that causes Carol’s tattered marriage to fall apart and forces her to make a wrenching choice: Will she give up custody of her beloved daughter so she can pursue her taboo love for Therese? The answer is yes, which, in Highsmith Country, qualifies as a “happy” ending. All this, as Highsmith noted, in “the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.” Finally, and most astonishing of all, when the novel came out in paperback it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and generated an avalanche of letters from grateful readers thanking Highsmith for daring to write a book in which two gay lovers wind up happy. The mass-market paperback carried a sizzling kicker: “The novel of a love society forbids.” As Highsmith noted, “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing -- alone and miserable and shunned -- into a depression equal to hell.” This is largely, though not entirely, accurate. In 1948, four years before The Price of Salt appeared, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a novel the homosexual characters of which also manage to avoid the fires of hell and achieve something like happiness. That quibble aside, there is no doubt that Highsmith, who preferred women as sexual partners, was both leery and proud of her controversial book. Fearing career suicide, she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; and years later, after finally acknowledging authorship, she exulted, “Oh god, how this story emerges from my own bones!” 2. Something Appalling Yet Irresistible Now, more than six decades after it was published, The Price of Salt joins the long list of Patricia Highsmith books to be made into a movie. This latest adaptation has been renamed Carol by its director, Todd Haynes, who tackled similar taboo material in Far From Heaven, his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows. This new adaptation features Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, two inspired casting choices -- the blondish woman in a fur coat who gives off light, and the dark plain pretty girl, perfect yin and yang. The screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, has been faithful to the novel without being slavish (she has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer to an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled the time sequence). Since this is a story of infatuation and fuzzy moral boundaries, the movie has an appropriately gauzy look and feel (shot by Edward Lachman). And the ending is perfect, the lovers’ reunion lifted straight from the novel: “Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing.” Cate Blanchett’s slow smile gives off light, and it announces that, against all odds, these two women are going to stay together and they are going to be happy. With Carol, Todd Haynes joins an illustrious roster of directors who have mined Highsmith’s fiction for source material, including Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol, René Clément, Anthony Minghella, and Hossein Amini, among others. I first came to Highsmith’s work through Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched again recently and found just as shamelessly seductive as it was 16 years ago -- all seaside sunshine and sex, with a relentless undertow of evil. Since talented Tom (played by Matt Damon at his very best) gets away with three murders and doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse or guilt, I assumed that the appeal of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is that it operates in an amoral world, where evil deeds not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with a major lifestyle upgrade. This formula brazenly contravenes the Hollywood commandments that evil must be punished and everything must come up roses. Minghella, like Clément before him, bravely embraced it. But this dark formula, it turns out, is not universal in Highsmith Country. Consider her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, which was made into a 2014 movie of the same title. It returns us to similar terrain from the first of the five Ripley novels: Americans with lots of money on the loose in the Mediterranean. An alcoholic American con man named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring the Greek ruins when they’re spotted as easy marks by a guide/hustler named Rydel (Oscar Isaac). When Chester kills a detective who has tracked him down, he manages to implicate Rydel as an accessory. Then Chester, in a fever of paranoia and jealousy, goes one better by killing Colette and framing Rydel for her murder. Eventually Chester is chased down and shot by the police, and as he dies he confesses to killing Colette, thus exonerating Rydel. It’s a far more conventional -- and tepid -- ending than The Talented Mr. Ripley. Hossein Amini, the writer and director of The Two Faces of January, has said he was attracted to the jealous alcoholic con man at the center of the story. “What I love about Highsmith,” Amini wrote, “is the way that she puts us in the shoes of traditionally ‘unlikeable’ characters, often criminals, and then makes us not only understand their motivations but recognize something of ourselves in them.” Highsmith attributed her enduring appeal to filmmakers to her obsession with duality, her tendency to let two mismatched characters have at each other -- Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Tom and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chester and Rydel in The Two Faces of January, and now Carol and Therese in Carol. As Highsmith told The New York Times in 1988, “It’s always interesting...when two people opposite in nature get tangled up. I’ve always done that; it’s like pitting good and evil, putting two strong boxers into the ring.” What sets Highsmith’s characters apart is not only that they are willing, even eager, to commit transgressive acts, but that they are so adept at covering them up and blithely living a lie, or, better yet, seeing to it that someone else gets the blame. As Amini said, we recognize something of ourselves in such people, and we find them both appalling and irresistible. It’s worth noting that Highsmith’s most indelible character, Tom Ripley, is such a slippery chameleon that he has been played, with varying degrees of success, by some very dissimilar actors, including Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something appalling yet irresistible in every one of their interpretations of the talented Mr. Ripley. 3. A Bad Bag of Applesauce Patricia Highsmith was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy human being. She kept pet snails. She was a mean-spirited, alcoholic, racist anti-Semite who freely admitted that her mother drank turpentine when she was pregnant with her, in an attempt to abort the fetus. The editor and writer Otto Penzler is a great fan of Highsmith’s writing while acknowledging that she was “a horrible human being.” She was what Fatty Arbuckle would have called “a bad bag of applesauce.” For all her documented flaws -- there have been two scrupulous biographies -- Highsmith was also a fanatical maker of fascinating lists. Here’s a beauty she tossed off on Nov. 16, 1973, while living in the French village of Moncourt: Little Crimes for Little Tots. Things around the house -- which small children can do, such as: 1.) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip. 2.) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it. 3.) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame, if possible. 4.) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in the fridge. 5.) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen. 6.) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs. 7.) In summer, fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion. 8.) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle. This list is at once hilarious and chilling and it contains, in distilled form, all the essential elements of Highsmith’s fiction: it’s highly practical, it’s written in unfussy prose, and in the end it’s all about murder. Item #3 is the most telling on the list, with its admonition to set “careful” fires so that “someone else will get the blame, if possible.” Here is the duplicity that lies at the heart of Highsmith’s enterprise -- the urge to do evil and not only get away with it, but make sure that someone else gets the blame. In a Highsmith story, culpability for a single crime frequently passes onto two characters (think of Chester and Rydel). Or the victim becomes the victimizer, as in The Cry of the Owl from 1962, which has been adapted for the screen twice, the story of an “innocent” stalker who winds up getting stalked by his “victim.” Highsmith uses this duplicity to ratchet up her favorite states of mind, including anxiety, jealousy, paranoia, dread, self-delusion, and resentment. Small wonder that Highsmith considered herself a writer of psychological novels, not “novels of suspense,” or that one of her favorite writers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that inveterate list makers are trying to lasso unruly demons, bring some sort of order to inner chaos. My late father was such a person, and it got to the point where he admitted, only half jokingly, that he had started making lists of his lists. That was when I knew he was in trouble. But Patricia Highsmith put my father in the shade. As her list of "Little Crimes for Little Tots" attests, she wasn’t trying to lasso or tamp down her inner demons; she was nurturing those demons, trying to make them as monstrous as possible. She understood that her demons were the source of her dark genius. They are also what will keep drawing filmmakers to her books for years to come.
Screening Room

Too Real to Be Real: The Problem of Authentic TV

Each week, my wife and I sit down to watch the most recent episode of Showtime’s The Affair -- a somewhat queasy activity for any married couple. The series, now in its second season, traces the destruction caused by a husband’s lust -- which ultimately leads him to abandon his wife and four children for an unstable seafood-shack waitress. In January, the show won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and Ruth Wilson, who plays Alison, the damaged mistress, won the award for Best Actress. It’s difficult to argue with either of those choices. The Affair is an extremely thoughtful, well-crafted show, with a Rashomon framing device that is both effective and unsettling. Its cast -- not only Wilson, but Dominic West, as Noah, the unfaithful husband, and Maura Tierney, as Helen, his betrayed wife -- all burn convincingly. It’s not particularly entertaining, but the level of commitment on display is indisputable. Most of the criticism of The Affair has to do with its pacing: compared to shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, The Affair moves glacially. Certain episodes have left me feeling that, not only has the ball not been moved downfield, but no play has been called at all. Nevertheless, the show is at its strongest when it slows things down: the knowing glances between Noah and Alison as they lie to their dinner hosts; Helen’s father waxing nostalgic in the backseat of a cab. This is what its makers are going for: an undeniable realism that hits its viewers in the chest. In an interview with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall last year, Sarah Treem, The Affair's co-creator, said, “We wanted to tell a story about two good people...You have kids and then you meet somebody by chance who you think is your soul mate. What do you do?” In attempting to answer that question in a believable way, Treem has set her show up for a peculiar kind of failure: when something actually happens on The Affair to move its story along, it often feels jarring and untrue. When Noah’s teenage daughter bursts into his new home, cursing and furious -- or, far worse, the show’s current engine, a Revenge-level plot about a vehicular homicide -- you can almost sense Treem’s embarrassment. Sorry, she seems to say; I need to build some scaffolding around those knowing glances. In this, she has become a victim of her own success: the greater its authenticity, the more false The Affair often feels. This has been an issue that films have dealt with for decades: how can something be both entertaining and true to life -- which, as we are all acutely aware, is overwhelmingly mundane? From Wild Strawberries to Ordinary People to Drinking Buddies, movies have grappled with this paradox to varying degrees of success. On television, the problem has been exacerbated by the medium’s drama-driven “golden age,” which has allowed showrunners like Treem to create, essentially, movies without end. Shows must now perform an act, from season to season, which once had to be performed only from show to show: maintaining our interest without letting things get too wonky. And this is most difficult to pull off for shows such as The Affair -- and Parenthood, Brothers and Sisters, In Treatment, and many more -- that strive for realism above all else. Well, not above all else. More than anything, they want to stay on the air. And naked emotionalism isn’t the surest path to big ratings. Friday Night Lights, which aired from 2006 to 2011, was, for all its raucous stadiums and bone-jarring collisions, one such quiet show. A conversation between husband and wife, or two struggling brothers, carried greater weight than the Dillon Panthers’ drive towards a championship. As Connie Britton, one of its stars, said in a 2011 Grantland oral history, “It’s not a show about football. It’s a show about community and family and the way people interact with each other.” As such, it was always on the cancellation bubble, and in response, it pulled a nearly-fatal stunt to kick off season two: it had one of its meekest characters commit murder. In the Grantland piece, the gimmick was explained: “We were coming to the end of Season 1, and the show was critically well-received,” said supervising producer David Hudgins. “But the numbers...So we thought, let’s do something big, something shocking and titillating and provocative.” Jesse Plemons, who played the unlikely murderer, said, “I never imagined Season 2 to go like it did, with the storyline about Landry murdering Tyra’s attacker.” Producer John Zinman admitted, “In retrospect, I think we would all say, ‘That was a bad call.’” I didn’t need the benefit of hindsight to tell me that; I remember turning to my wife as we watched the episode and saying, “What the hell was that?” But for the all flagrance of Landry’s ratings-chasing violence, such things happen on such “authentic” shows many times per episode; it’s all a matter of degrees. On Parenthood, it’s an argument that sends someone storming from a room, or a business that gets hit by burglars. On Six Feet Under, it’s a kidnapping by a crack addict, or the accidental ingestion of Ecstasy. On The Affair, it’s Helen getting stoned in Washington Square Park and having vengeful sex with her ex-husband’s best friend. Movies can avoid these speed bumps more easily, because they don’t need to drag us along for a span of years. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is a nearly perfect film in which little of consequence ever seems to happen. It’s 111 minutes long. The aforementioned Drinking Buddies hinges on even less, but remains almost mystically entertaining. It runs an hour and a half. TV dramas, however, don’t benefit from such brevity. In Treem’s HitFix interview, she said, “We’re only doing ten episodes the first season, and I had asked for that, because I knew that I had ten episodes of really great story and then beyond that I was gonna start reaching.” The Affair -- now 15 episodes in -- isn’t reaching yet, but it is entering a phase that seems unique and fairly uncomfortable. Its realism is so assured that its necessary, story-moving dramas have come to seem loud and fraudulent. Treem’s goal was for us to believe that we’re just like these characters, and that -- not high-octane thrills or McGuffin-packed storytelling -- is what draws us in to her show and others like it. Who hasn’t thought of being unfaithful -- of burning the whole thing down and starting over, just to see what it’s like? But the difference between our lives and those of television characters is that we don’t need extraneous drama to earn an annual renewal. We just keep on living, and it can get pretty boring sometimes. That’s why we watch TV.
Essays, Screening Room

In Praise of Cartoon Violence

I recently bought a DVD set for my six-year-old son that featured the following offenses: reckless gunplay, the detonation of high explosives, apparent vehicular homicide, assault with a baseball bat, plunges from great heights, electrocutions, jailbreaks, punches, slaps, kicks, and shoves into oncoming traffic. For good measure, there was also a healthy dose of cross-dressing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my son has been transfixed by the gift: Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Vol. 1. There wasn’t much behind the purchase beyond the fact that I’d loved Looney Tunes as a child, and hoped that he might, too. Every Saturday morning, from 10 to 11, I sat before my parents’ balky Zenith to watch Bugs, Daffy, and the rest beat each other senseless with blithe and winking glee. As I watched the shorts with my son, I felt as if I’d last seen them just a few weeks before, not during the Reagan era. “Oh, man, wait ‘til you see what he does here,” I kept saying, just before some comically heinous act. When the deed was carried out -- a push from a circus high-dive; a rifle-blast to the face -- it happened exactly as I’d known it would. As each episode concluded, I found myself struck by how smart the humor was, and how sharply it was delivered. The bulk of the shorts were made between 60 and 70 years ago, yet outside of the obvious markers -- rotary telephones, daily milk delivery, cameras with flashbulbs -- they hadn’t aged at all. Bugs Bunny’s quick wit, despite his Old Brooklyn accent, was as deft as ever. In the wake of this summer’s Confederate flag controversy, Yosemite Sam’s belligerence felt practically on-the-nose. And Pepe LePew’s pursuit of the white-striped feline was as squirm-inducing as anything from Seth MacFarlane or the South Park guys. Why was I so surprised by Looney Tunes’s freshness? Most likely because, over the last few years, I’ve forgotten what cartoons can do. My son has come to favor shows like Chuck & Friends, Thomas and Friends, and Clifford the Big Red Dog. The programs are aggressively bland, crammed with supposed “lessons,” and so focused on the themes of teamwork and sharing that they border on the satirical. Whenever I walk through the room when my son has the TV on, I invariably hear a snippet of motivational-sounding talk delivered in a faux-uplifting tone. On its face, such positivity seems an obvious good: Like most parents of six-year-old boys, I’ve spent much of his post-toddler life trying to get him to “play nice,” to view other children as more than mere beings intent on grabbing his toys -- to not, in effect, act like he’s six years old. So if he wants to waste a half-hour with a TV show, why not let it be one that promotes behavior I’ve been campaigning for? The answer lies in the reality that my desire for him to not “act like he’s six years old” is as likely to be fulfilled as my wish for him to win the 2036 Cy Young Award -- a fact borne out by recent childhood-development research. A 2013 Harvard experiment showed that children can distinguish between “fair” and “unfair” -- but don’t necessarily use that understanding to share with other kids. In the study, children were given stickers to keep, then asked how they would distribute them to their peers. As The Boston Globe’s Carolyn Johnson wrote at the time, “Children of all ages agreed that other children should split up the stickers evenly. But when it came to their own sharing, younger children were far more likely to keep more for themselves.” The sticker-hoarding subjects were “a bunch of self-aware hypocrites.” As if such findings weren’t frustrating enough, there is evidence that, for young children, the concept of sharing can be almost neurologically impossible to grasp. One widely cited study from 2012, published in the journal Neuron, found that the area of the brain involved in impulse control was, unsurprisingly, more developed in adults than in children -- suggesting that, in the words of LiveScience.com’s Linda Thrasybule, “selfish behavior in children may not be due to their inability to know ‘fair’ from ‘unfair,’ but rather an immature part of the brain that doesn’t support selfless behavior when tempted to act selfishly.” In other words, children’s brains must grow before they can share those treasured stickers. None of this is to say that a child’s selfishness should be excused or tolerated -- when your kid doesn’t want to share a tennis ball at the park, you can’t pat him on the head and tell the other parents that “recent studies prove it’s okay for my son to be a dick.” But if my lessons on kindness and sharing, repeated ad nauseam and delivered in increasing volume over a number of years, haven’t produced much effect, why would those lessons -- delivered via Thomas’s sleepy narrator or a talking Tonka truck -- have any effect either? And if those shows’ central message is doomed to fail due to the natural limitations of our children’s brains, what do the shows consist of? Beyond immobilizing a child so that you can have a cup of coffee, what point do they serve? My son’s collection of Thomas trains, $11.99 a pop, seems the most likely answer. Ironically, it was distress over prefabricated, product-ready cartoons -- cheap, noisy crap like He-Man and GoBots -- that has brought us to this point. In the decades since the creation of Looney Tunes, a number of formal efforts, such as the Children’s Protection from Violent Programming Act, were undertaken to soften children’s programming. Though that bill ultimately died in the Senate in 2001 -- like a coyote falling from a desert plateau, I am tempted to say -- the Children’s Television Act, passed a decade before, was already bringing about an era of self-policing throughout the industry. As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2012, “networks were [now] required to demonstrate that their programming slates included educational material -- although what was ‘good for children’ was not necessarily the same as ‘good.’ In 1992, that big purple optimist Barney became a hit.” Today, it seems that children’s programming has split into two camps: absurdist fare such as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Amazing World of Gumball -- which hold their baffled young viewers’ attention through a blend of color and speed — and treacly post-Barney pap like Thomas and Chuck & Friends. In this climate, it’s difficult to imagine something as smartly anarchic -- and yes, as violent -- as Looney Tunes ever being green-lit. (Even Wabbit, a Looney Tunes reboot that recently premiered on Cartoon Network, is surprisingly strained, a combination of mediocre animation and dutiful homage.) This is unfortunate, because when I observe my son as he watches a Bugs Bunny cartoon -- wide-eyed and tickled, forever on the edge of laughter -- I see a real engagement there, the inverse of his Thomas-induced stupor. And far from being mindless “Itchy and Scratchy” mayhem, something to legislate against, Looney Tunes had genuine lessons -- likely unintentional, but clearly there -- embedded in each short. They taught that intelligence was more important than aggression, as Bugs outwitted Yosemite Sam and Tweety Bird outwitted Sylvester, time and time again. Through Pepe LePew, they conveyed the stupidity of lust; with Wile E. Coyote, they showed that pure desire sometimes wasn’t enough to obtain the thing you want. Unlike contemporary cartoons, Looney Tunes didn’t have a thing to say about teamwork or caring or sharing; on the contrary, its characters nearly always acted alone. Is Bugs Bunny teaching my son to be independent any more than Thomas the Tank Engine is teaching him to be a better kid? That I can’t say for sure. But at least while he’s watching Bugs Bunny, we can share a genuine laugh.