Talking Movies

April 5, 2012

Titanic 3-D

James Cameron’s watery disaster epic returns to cinemas but it turns out that making it three dimensional was not the secret to making it good…
 
First off let’s be clear that the 3-D doesn’t add anything, in fact it’s very distracting. Not only do out of focus objects continually annoy you in the foreground, where they were clearly never meant to be the centre of attention of the shot, but the 3-D also renders many scenes hilariously fake; people might as well be standing in front of a painted backdrop at the port in France. And that’s before we get to the completely CGI tracking shot swooping over the ‘digitally recreated’ ship, which was so revered at the time. I was unimpressed then; owing to the fact that it was a boat, we’d all seen boats, and this one didn’t look particularly realistic; but now I can only hoot in derision as the 3-D enables you to note that passengers wobbling about look as realistic as if Morph from Take Hart was taking a stroll.
 
Viewing Titanic in retrospect it’s hard not to see a good deal of Revolutionary Road’s Frank and April Wheeler in Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet); from their baffling insistence on inserting each other’s name into every second line of dialogue, to Winslet’s whingeing about the stifling nature of prosperity. ‘Poor little rich girl’ is indeed an apt term as Cameron never rises beyond the social and gender politics of a music video, or indeed the aesthetics; Exhibit A, Rose running thru the engine room’s beautiful steam in her white dress. This is fantasy, not history. It is embarrassing to sit thru a movie from the writer of the quotable Aliens and Terminator 2 that suddenly displays an absolute cloth ear for dialogue The painful Freud and Picasso gags render the already dreadfully hammy Billy Zane and his retinue absolute pantomime villains by making them preening, ignorant, sexist snobs.
 
The best moments are dialogue free; the moving silent montage as the quartet plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, Bernard Hill’s captain mutely deciding to go down with the ship, Victor Garber’s devastated shipwright waiting for his flawed design to buckle. It’s nice to see members of the Cameron repertory company Bill Paxton and Janette Goldstein appear in small roles, but they hammer home that while Cameron’s sinking is an impressive technical achievement, it’s too little too late. It’s impressive because the huge set gives it alarming reality, but unlike Avatar there hasn’t been enough action to hide the flaws leading up to it. I’ve always suspected that this movie was Too Big to Fail and that’s why the MPAA, subconsciously mindful of collapsing a studio, rated it PG-13 not R in spite of Winslet’s nude scene being dubbed by her character’s narration “the most erotic experience of my life”. With great budgets come great responsibility, and Cameron seems to have decided that a very stupid across the tracks romance was the only way to get Titanic financed. He might well have been right. Unfortunately, that unbearably idiotic story is what sinks the film.
 
If you want a more satisfying experience of what Cameron might originally have had in mind then watch 1958’s A Night to Remember and the last hour of Terminator 2
 
1.5/5

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July 12, 2011

Richard Yates Studies and Hollywood’s Gravity

It seems absurd to quibble about Richard Yates Studies when it’s such a triumph that there finally is such a field as Richard Yates studies, but I fear Hollywood’s gravity…

I fear it for this reason:
ACADEMIC 1: I’m speaking tomorrow on the comparative panel.
ACADEMIC 2: Who are you talking about alongside John McGahern?
ACADEMIC 1: Richard Yates, American writer, roughly contemporary.
ACADEMIC 2: Ah, yes, yes. (beat) What did he write?
ACADEMIC 1: (strained pause) Revolutionary Road.
ACADEMIC 2: Oh yes, the one with-
ACADEMIC1: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, yes…

It’s a simple truth that, despite the glorious Vintage reprints of the past few years, the long critical neglect of Richard Yates has left its mark. And it’s all too easy for the fact that the first (incredibly belated) film adaptation of his work was of his debut novel, about the 1950s, to perpetuate the unfair perception that Yates wrote one great novel in 1961 and then deservedly disappeared. This ignores his bibliography. His stunning trio of novels Disturbing the PeaceThe Easter Parade  and A Good School, which between them incisively dissect American life from the 1930s to the 1970s, all appeared within three years of each other in the second half of the 1970s.

It’s also a danger that Sam Mendes’ film will type Yates as a gloom-merchant of unrelieved tragedy. Yates is the poet laureate of failed dreams, but, as I’ve noted elsewhere in relation to the film, there is terrific comedy on the path from hope to disappointment that his writings customarily traverse. I saw the 1972 film adaptation of Peter Barnes’ demented play The Ruling Class just before the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference last year. I thus suggested to David Fernley that a way to correct any Mendes-inspired popular perception of Yates as miserabilist would be to quickly film Disturbing the Peace with non-naturalist sequences drawing out Yates’ dark humour. After all Peter O’Toole’s description of The Ruling Class as black comedy with tragic relief fairly characterises some of Yates’ work.

Finally I fear Hollywood’s gravity could unbalance Richard Yates Studies on two fronts. It’s easier to write on an obscure text by a well-known author, because there are less existing critical readings defeating your attempts to say something original, but it’s also easier to write on a well-known text by an obscure author than it is to write on an obscure text by an obscure author. Name-recognition does count at some level, even if it’s in the subconscious of an academic planning an article for a refereed journal and worrying that an examination of two short stories by Yates might prove just too niche for a non-Yates journal. I plan to yoke together Revolutionary Road and A Special Providence because they nicely link for an unusual argument, but I’m convinced I thought of that argument because I subconsciously also felt that Revolutionary Road would add weight to A Special Providence in the same way that John McGahern said short stories in a collection can lean on each other for support.

The second front is a more consciously considered problem than the prospect of everyone writing about Revolutionary Road to improve their chances of publication. It is the problem of getting Yates onto curriculums. Getting a non-canonical writer onto an American Literature course wins plaudits but in a world of modularisation it’s not as simple a task as it might once have been when core courses covered a canon and selected alternatives to that canon at the whim of the lecturer(s). If students have a choice of competing modules common sense and basic economics says modules will start to bend towards attracting students by including books, canonical and alt-canonical, they’ll want to read. Revolutionary Road rather than The Easter Parade will always appear then because, thanks to the Hollywood hype machine, students will recognise one title and not the other.

Those are my fears about how Hollywood may skew Richard Yates Studies, but the wider idea of cinema bending literary studies will be returned to…

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.

April 30, 2010

Revolutionary Adaptation

Revolutionary Road was acclaimed by Kurt Vonnegut as The Great Gatsby of his generation, but does that classification beside a totem of modernist literature suggest that filming Richard Yates’ novel in a straightforward realist fashion is doomed to failure?

Watching Revolutionary Road you wish you knew more about how the Wheelers came to this point, the substance of their dream and their complaint about suburbia, and you wish that the supporting characters were more fleshed out. Then you read the book and find that a third of the text, if not more, is taken up with flashbacks showing how each character came to this point. The Wheeler children are barely characterised in the film but an undercurrent in the book is the damage that Frank and April’s fighting inflicts on their children. There are heartbreaking descriptions of how they simply crumble when their parents fight, and in one devastating scene it’s implied that April’s behaviour will be faithfully replicated in the future by her daughter Jennifer – she will always do whatever she feels like doing.

Yates is a masterful writer. His language isn’t as gorgeous as the heights reached by his hero Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby but his prose is so wonderfully incisive that you find yourself reading a paragraph repeatedly for its insight. Asides from an unfilmable delicacy with language Yates treats his characters with a universal sympathy hidden beneath endless irony. Mrs Givings is a mere figure of fun to be scorned in the film but Yates manages the nigh-impossible feat of making you laugh at characters for their self-delusions, and in the next paragraph feel pity for them. These characters know they are deceiving themselves, but they must do so in order to go on living. Compared to this Tolstoyan compassion Mendes’ film makes characters and events far simpler and clear-cut. The film removes much of the sting from the fights because we are not privy to Frank’s constant despair that April may leave him at anytime simply because she feels like it – she is a master of mental torture, and even her line about his recourse to physical abuse against this is cut.

The comedy of the novel, such as the epic shirking of work at Knox by Frank, Jack Ordway, and all the other staff, is almost completely lost in the film. Yates’ novel is extremely funny throughout, and its lengthy description of how Frank organises his desk to avoid work is side-splitting stuff. Instead Mendes presents Frank’s Toledo memo as nonsense, when it is the only genuinely good work he has done in years for the company and so merits the attention it bestows on him. Also lost are Frank’s qualms as he runs through various possible comments in his head before delivering horrendous lines for his appraisal of the performances of the Laurel Players and Maureen Grube. Modernist literature is defined by its concern for interiority and the loss of that inner perspective hurts the film by making Frank seem a good deal more callous than Yates intends him to be.

Can a faithful treatment really ignore so many elements of its source? Can a blackly comic novel be truly rendered as an unremitting tragedy? Can a modernist novel be adapted at all without drowning a realist film in voiceover and flashback? Adaptation is always a perilous task but Revolutionary Road suggests that adapting modernist novels is impossible to do within the accepted confines of Hollywood realism…

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