Talking Movies

January 8, 2016

Bret Easton Ellis: Page to Screen

Bret Easton Ellis has written seven books, four have been filmed, and two of those have been set in Los Angeles. And yet they are by far the weakest of the Ellis adaptations… Here’s a teaser of my piece for HeadStuff on those adaptations.

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“I stand back from the unfinished canvas. I realise that I would rather spend my money on drugs than on art supplies” – The Rules of Attraction (novel)

While Hollywood was premiering his debut, mangled to appeal to perceived Reaganised teenagers, Ellis published his sophomore novel The Rules of Attraction, in which the influence of Reaganism is present in the Freshmen wanting a weight room and vetoing Louis Farrakhan as a speaker. Camden College life in the 1985 Fall term is narrated in short vignettes by Sean Bateman, Paul Denton, Lauren Hynde, and some secondary characters. An unreliable picture emerges from their overlapping experiences at parties, cafeteria lunches, hook-ups, classes, and trips to town. Denton narrates a secret affair with Bateman, Bateman narrates a minor friendship with Denton, Bateman and Lauren hook up for a disastrous relationship which both record very differently, and Bateman’s secret admirer (who he thought was Lauren) kills herself when he sleeps with Lauren. STDs and abortions are the frequent price of the casual sex merry-go-round of Camden’s never-ending party, and Lauren pays in full. Ellis’ dialogue is a marvel, with one-liners aplenty in concisely captured conversations, while the trademark pop culture references (everybody is listening to Little Creatures) are married to more nuanced narration. Denton, the most self-aware and self-critical character, eschews auditioning for the Shepard play because his life already is one. Spielberg is memorably critiqued for being secular humanism not rigorous modernism, but mostly these intelligent characters play dumb because excess is what’s expected.

“What does that mean? Know me? Know me? Nobody knows anyone else. Ever. You will never, ever know me” – The Rules of Attraction (film)

Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary adapted and directed the novel, and Ellis dubbed the 2002 film “the one movie that captured my sensibility in a visual and cinematic language.” The rise of independent cinema meant Avary could cast James Van Der Beek as Bateman without bowdlerising the novel. The film is alternately shocking (it opens with the rape of Shannyn Sossamon’s Lauren), hilarious (Denton [Ian Somerhalder] and Dick [Russell Sams] perform an entirely improvised dance to ‘Faith’ in their underwear), and romantic (an extended split-screen sequence shows Bateman and Lauren finally meeting at their Saturday morning tutorial). Avary stylishly plays out the climactic ‘End of the World’ party from three viewpoints before winding back to the start of term, and situates Camden in a temporal twilight zone; with broadband internet but a 1980s soundtrack of The Cure and Erasure. Avary radically changes Lauren’s character, by throwing many of her traits onto loose roommate Lara (Jessica Biel). Lauren is now a virgin, waiting for Victor to return from Europe, whereas in the book she waited on Victor while sleeping with Franklyn. From being a mirror of Bateman, who sleeps with her friend while being in love with Lauren, she becomes a Madonna. There’s no longer an alienated road-trip with Sean ending with an abortion, just as Sean’s affair with Denton is reduced to one split-screen scene implicitly showing Denton’s fantasy. Avary’s changes make more violent and consequential Bateman’s successive breaks with Lauren and Denton, when she tells Bateman he will never know her, and he repeats her lines to Denton. Denton and Lauren’s snowy encounter after the ‘End of the World’ party, scored by Tomandandy with electronic eeriness, becomes a haunting summation: “Doesn’t matter anyway. Not to people like him. Not to people like us.” Lauren’s momentary self-condemnatory thought, unsaid in the novel, is spoken and brings things close to Gatsby’s “careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money.”

Click here to read the full piece on HeadStuff.org.

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May 23, 2013

The Moth Diaries

American Psycho director Mary Harron returns with a Carmilla-indebted horror of female vampires at an upstate New York private school starring Irish actress Sarah Bolger.

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Our heroine Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is inseparable from her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon). Indeed, haunted as she still is by the memory of her father’s suicide, Lucy may have been the only thing that kept Rebecca from spiralling out of control a few years previously. However, their bond is tested with the arrival of ethereal new student Ernessa (Lily Cole). The growing friendship between Ernessa and Lucy is resented by Rebecca, especially as other girls in their close-knit circle seem to self-destruct in various ways after getting too close to Ernessa’s baneful influence. And then Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) starts to teach them about Gothic fiction and Rebecca realises that Ernessa is undoubtedly a vampire, slowly draining the life out of Lucy. But is Rebecca merely suffering from nightmarish hallucinations as she slides towards the fate of her father?

I’m reviewing this film from the odd perspective of having attended the screening at JDIFF which featured a Q&A with Harron, and Jeff Bridges’ insistence that ‘the intentions are always good’ in film-making is true with a vengeance here. Harron’s explanation of the ambiguity she wanted to imbue the film with make it fit perfectly beside American Psycho in her canon. But… The Moth Diaries doesn’t actually possess that intended ambiguity. This is partly because you can see the twist a mile off as Ernessa isolates Rebecca by breaking up her social circle. But mostly it’s because Lily Cole does not look remotely human. Dressed in flowing black clothes that accentuate her height and porcelain doll head she might as well sport an “Hello, I’m a vampire” nametag on her first appearance. And a muted horror without ambiguity is dubious.

The Moth Diaries was a nightmare to finance because of its female focus, and, unlike Orson Welles’ Othello, which is stunning despite many jarring effects caused by its interrupted shooting, it feels as if Harron simply fell over the finishing line with relief rather than with the confidence that buoyed The Notorious Bettie Page. There’s some very clunky dialogue, especially in Speedman’s scenes, and many of the characters are clichés, though Valerie Tian does stellar work with a tokenistic role. But Bolger is a very sympathetic lead and Cronenberg favourite Gadon is a good foil for her. There’re some beautiful touches by DP Declan Quinn in varying the drab colour scheme of the school with vivid torrents of blood, ghostly moonlight walks, and disruptive flashbacks and sex scenes that drip bright colours, while Harron’s final Apollonian image is also impressive.

Harron is an interesting writer/director but this film is a disappointment. It outstays its welcome despite its short running time, largely because it never emerges from cliché’s comforting cocoon.

2.5/5

July 12, 2011

New Approaches to Richard Yates

I delivered my paper ‘Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’ to the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference held in Goldsmiths University of London in June last year. With that paper since revised and submitted as a journal article, I thought I’d look back at the illuminating proceedings organised by Leif Bull and Catherine Humble.

Saturday 5 June

Plenary Speaker: Jo Gill (University of Exeter)
‘“The Important Thing Was to keep from Being Contaminated” –
    Suburban Malaise in the Fiction of Richard Yates’

Session 1: An Old Fashioned Realist

‘The Metarealism of Richard Yates’
Leif Bull (Goldsmiths University of London)

‘What’s Wrong with the Suburbs: Living the Dream Down Revolutionary Road’
Catherine Humble (Goldsmiths University of London)
Session 2: Revolutionary Road on the Big Screen

Revolutionary Road: Modernist Novel, Realist Film?’
Fergal Casey (University College Dublin)

‘Undermining Hollywood: Richard Yates’ Project of Exposure’
Kate Charlton-Jones (University of Essex)
Session 3: Suburban Dreams

‘Generational Confusion in the Work of Richard Yates’
David Fernley (University of Nottingham)

‘Liquid Lunch: The Collapse of Capital and the Rise of Suburbia and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Yates, West and Ellis’
Dean Brown (University of Sussex)
Summary Note: Leif Bull
Richard Yates’ long and shameful neglect by a modish academia is thankfully coming to an end and this conference demonstrated that far from being easily dismissed as a ‘mere realist’ there is in fact rich grounds for many critical schools in the work of the Yonkers native. Indeed it was striking that even though a number of us covered the same text, the inevitable Revolutionary Road, our papers all approached it from radically different angles. Plenary speaker Jo Gill noted the language of disease used by Yates to describe suburban psychological malaise on the part of men and women in Revolutionary Road and a number of other texts, and incisively located this in both the explicit health concerns behind the rise of suburbia in post-war America and the coded racist concerns about desegregated education post-1954. Catherine Humble gave a rigorous Lacanian psychoanalytic reading of Revolutionary Road that saw the infamous symbolic picture window receive appropriate scrutiny, as well as bringing out the difference between Frank’s rebellion, satire of society without change, and that of April. I read debts to the high modernism of F Scott Fitzgerald into Revolutionary Road’s temporal fluidity, ironic tone, characters with shifting identities and ambiguity of plot, while examining how Sam Mendes’ film simplified precisely those elements to achieve Hollywood realism. Dean Brown placed Revolutionary Road in continuum with The Day of the Locust and American Psycho and dazzlingly contextualised the progress of the rise of credit consumerism contemporary to each text allied to decline in self-generated identity in their characters.

Other speakers focused on other works with equally kaleidoscopic approaches. Leif Bull examined Disturbing the Peace and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness to show Yates’ blending of objective reality and literary history delivering satirical black comedy with an emotional weight and meta-textual awareness that anticipates the new postmodernism of DF Wallace. Kate Charlton-Jones used the short stories ‘A Glutton for Punishment’ and ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ to illuminate Yates’ abiding concern with the damage done to people by imitating cinematic archetypes which amplified a simplistic political message of hope and re-invention. David Fernley persuasively used Disturbing the Peace, The Easter Parade, and Young Hearts Crying to rescue Yates from being a spokesman for the 1950s by showing Yates satirising in his work characters who foolishly fossilised themselves in constructed generational roles. Richard Yates is not just a realist linked to his time. He can be subjected to hard-core theory, explored for modernist currents, located in the material realities of his time, and read for meta-texuality and characters that resist easy categories. Richard Yates studies, long delayed, is here in force now…
Postscript:
Goldsmiths College is located near enough to Greenwich on the Tube for a Master & Commander fan like me to connive to stay in Greenwich and exult in the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, looking at old ships, old naval clocks, and even the coat Nelson was shot in. If you’re staying in Greenwich I highly recommend the lovely (and highly literary) B&B where I stayed, No 37.

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

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