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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June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

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I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

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Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

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MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

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If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

February 28, 2013

Arbitrage

A Golden Globe nominated Richard Gere plays a high-flying Wall Street magnate  juggling crises financial, emotional, and ominously legal in screenwriter  Nicholas Jarecki’s feature debut.

Photography By Myles Aronowitz

Robert Miller (Gere) is the CEO and founder of investment firm Miller  Capital. He’s about to sell his company to the fabulously wealthy James Mayfield  (Graydon Carter), but needs the deal to happen urgently before the $400 million  hole in his accounts, hidden by his pliable auditor, is discovered. His personal  life, juggling his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and his mistress Julie (Laetitia  Casta), is stressful enough. But between trying to stave off his wife’s  suspicions, visit his mistress’s new art exhibition to avoid her hysteria, and  finagle the forensic accountants, Miller finds himself asleep at the wheel,  literally. He enlists the help of an old lieutenant’s son, Jimmy (Nate Parker),  to cover up his deadly accident, but it seems certain either his  daughter/business partner Brooke (Britt Marling) or embittered NYPD homicide  detective Bryer (Tim Roth) will unravel Miller’s lies.

Richard Gere is a puzzling actor. He’s occasionally self-satisfied but can  generate audience sympathy out of thin air in films like Red Corner and The Jackal, but, as the necessity of doing so  in films like those indicates, he just can’t seem to recognise good scripts.  Gere does have some barnstorming rants here, and he’s brilliant at saying  abrasive things and then instantly apologising; as if the stress Miller is under  causes his social filters to malfunction. But Gere alone cannot carry a film  dripping cliché. His mistress Julie is the most irritating, high-maintenance,  art gallery owning French stereotype imaginable. It is simply impossible to care  about her, when you want to slap Miller for carrying on with her given how great  his privileged life is. And this is the script’s fault as Casta excelled as  Bardot in 2010’s Gainsbourg.

The slowly tightening legal vice  around Jimmy as he tries to stonewall his way out of admitting any involvement  with Miller’s situation is compelling, but not nearly as tense as that in Side Effects. Jarecki also nicely heightens  the suspense of Miller trying to meet the elusive Mr Mayfield to settle the  buyout of his firm in person like men. But this film doesn’t really shed a light  on high finance like Margin Call (or  even Wall Street 2’s central speech)  did. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama, Dickens and Ibsen are melodramatic;  what’s unforgivable is turgid melodrama. And, when Sarandon finally comes into  her own near the end, her grandstanding reveals that, for all Marling’s gameness  in showing how Brooke’s suspicions of her father’s honesty cause her to unravel,  this is melodrama about a tycoon masquerading as biting social commentary.

Jarecki was dropped from directing his 2008 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers. This proves his  competence directing, but his script offers many individual gems without overall  impact.

2.5/5

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