Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ninth Configuration

Twinkle, Twinkle, "Killer" Kane! [1966]
Written by William Peter Blatty

The Ninth Configuration [1980]
Written and Directed by William Peter Blatty

The Ninth Configuration is a film destined for the Cult Classics section of the video store. It's about Vietnam and veteran readjustment. It's about sanity in an insane world. It's a wacky/serious psychiatric hospital picture in the vein of King of Hearts or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's a Gothic "dark, scary castle" picture. It's a Catholic discourse on God's silence in response to the evil that plagues creation. And it's a sequel to The Exorcist about a character who got five minutes of screentime in that film...and was upstaged by Linda Blair pissing on the carpet.

That character is the astronaut to whom Blair's Pazuzu-possessed Regan remarks, "You're going to die up there." His name is Captain Cutshaw and on the launching pad of his moonshot he had a bit of a freak out. Now he's in an imported German castle in the Pacific Northwest that the Marines have converted into an experimental asylum for vets who lost it in 'Nam. Are Cutshaw et al. really beyond the pale, or are they faking it to stay out of harm's way? Marine psychiatrist Colonel Kane is sent to assess the men and evaluate if they can return to duty or not. But, not surprisingly, Kane himself has terrible secrets that are roaring to escape.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that Kane was written and published before The Exorcist, and that the astronaut in that book/film was unnamed. Correct and correct again. After the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, author Blatty used his newfound Hollywood clout to write and direct the film version of Kane. He got a better (and spoiler-free) title, updated the story, dispensed with some unnecessary (and relatively flat) buffoonery involving a paranoid senator and the general hounding him for funding, and shifted the locale a few hundred miles north. The uneven tonal shifts of the novel are finessed and equalized; the decision has been made to take things a bit more seriously from the get go, and we're clued in to that fact by the film's moody atmosphere and music. There are still some smart bits of comedy (the dogs learning Shakespeare bits still amuse me), but an outer darkness rings and reins in the absurdity. Oh, and there's a kick ass bar fight and a minor miraculous denouement.

The Ninth Configuration is the second in Blatty's "Trilogy of Faith," being followed by The Exorcist III. (Sorry, John Boorman's literally abysmal The Exorcist II: The Heretic has no place within the Blatty canon.) Each film deals with the problem of retaining faith when contested by evil. The Exorcist portrays spiritual evil, The Ninth Configuration portrays human evil, and Exorcist III combines the two in the form of a Satanic serial killer. In each, a troubled Catholic uses the wickedness around him to reaffirm his faith in the one true church. There's usually a martyrdom in there somewhere, too.

Admittedly, it can all get a bit heavy handed. I had to grit my teeth when Cutshaw ecstatically muttered, "He gave his life for us." And as viewers we're never really in doubt that the path of righteousness will be proven true and just. But the acting's good, the dialogue (when not devoted to sermonizing) is sharp, and the sum of the parts yields a truly unhinged spiritual redemption film for which there is no real comparison.

If you're up for some gonzo Catholicism and you need a break from Mel Gibson, give The Ninth Configuration a try. After all, where else are you going to see Christ crucified on the moon?

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Diva [1979]
Written by Delacorta [Daniel Odier]
Translated by Lowell Bair

Diva [1981]
Written by Jean-Jacques Beineix and Jean Van Hamme
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beneix

"I don't like fidelity. A screenplay has to be creative even if it's based on a novel. If it tries to be the same thing, it doesn't succeed. I ask the filmmaker to be completely free and not to repeat the book. I want to enjoy creativity, not repetition." - Daniel Odier

So then, by decree of the author, the film Diva cannot be the same as the book. The unwritten assumption of the blog so far has been that a successful adaptation requires being a faithful adaptation. The classic argument against such a position is that, as both book and film are essentially equal, it makes having two editions redundant. Ironically, I had never felt that particular sense of bored déjà vu until I popped Diva into my DVD player.

Of all the texts encountered so far, Diva has been the most cinematically written. The pacing is perfect, with an assured balance between character development and exciting action sequence. The moped chase through Paris has to be one of the most well-written set pieces I have ever come across. Due to its position roughly halfway into the book, we know that Jules will survive, but the whole thing is so gripping that we must read on. For some reason, I couldn't maintain that oh so precious disbelief during the movie's chase. By all technical and aesthetic standards it was just as good, but a terrible "been there, done that" vibe seemed to dampen my enthusiasm.

Would a literal filming have been better? Should Alba have been 13 and not Vietnamese? Would the frisson be increased by making Saporta's role more transparent from the get go? Had the damn thing been too hyped up by all and sundry, making the viewing a textbook case of expectations raised too high? Did I just want to plough through the DVD so I could return it to the library and go back to my reading? I honestly don't know. But my gut feeling is that this particular experiment has been a bit of a bust. I'm sorry, but I'm just too lukewarm about the whole thing to really break into any sort of heady analysis. Let's just go the verdict and pray for better results with the next comparison.

Neither film nor book are classics by any stretch of the imagination, but each are diverting enough in their own right. Ultimately, having one negates the need to have the other. I hate to admit this, but you can probably skip the book; it's had less of a cultural effect in America than the film. And if you really need to be able to discuss Diva at a cocktail party or to impress a date, the assumption will be that you're talking about the movie. Should you need the book, just fall back on the introductory quote and you'll be OK.

We'll be seeing more of Jean-Jacques Beneix in future posts. Let's hope I'll have more to say when we get there....

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Most Dangerous Game

"The Most Dangerous Game" [1924]
Written by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game [1932]
Written by James Ashmore Creelman
Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack

So far in this series, when we have discussed adaptation our primary focus was on plot: Do book A and movie B tell the same story? Do the same characters do the same things? For our reading of the two incarnations of The Most Dangerous Game, it would be more profitable to examine tone and its relation to genre. How do short story and film tackle the subject of hunting humans?

The topic is grim, and the narrative (regardless of medium) is often unceremoniously dropped in the "horror" bin, sometimes to be regaled as one of the "good" examples of this generally reviled class of fictions. But the two "Game"s are hardly horrorshows; while both dabble in the macabre (particularly when dealing with Zaroff's trophy room), the primary aim of neither story nor film is to horrify. The terror which pervades the hunting sequence of "Game" is different than that generated by (and I cite these instances as great exemplars of their type) Sally's pursuit in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Ripley's mad dash through the Nostromo at the climax of Alien. No, the sense of the abject which serves as a traditional litmus test for horror is all but absent as Zaroff chases Rainsford (and, in the film, Eve) through the jungle.

Connell opts to create a thriller. The bulk of his short story involves Rainsford drawing upon all of his hunting skill to rig lethal booby traps for Zaroff. Both men are portrayed as ruthlessly pursuing their goal, the death of their opponent. In particular, Rainsford holds no illusions about the outcome of the game; either he or Zaroff must murder the other. The means of death dealt by the traps aren't pleasant: crushing or impalement. We may cringe once a trap is sprung, but Connell never revels in the ensuing gore. His narrative is a model of economy; stopping to rubberneck over the mangled remains would only detract from the heart-stopping pace of the hunt.

Pichel and Schoedsack cut the two impaling traps, but give us a guided tour of the dreaded trophy room (complete with head in a jar)! Combined with scenes of Rainsford killing one of Zaroff's hunting dogs, it provides a deliciously nasty little taste of pre-Code filmmaking. But, again, the directors aren't out to horrify. In fact, when these gruesome elements are placed within their tropical context, the film is revealed as a jungle action picture. Zaroff and his Cossacks are the Slavic analogues to the African headhunters of any number of adventure yarns. (In one ludicrous moment Zaroff even refers to his people as being "savage." So much for the ethnic warrior pride of Taras Bulba....)

What most stands out to a modern viewer of The Most Dangerous Game is its similarity to the next year's King Kong. Schoedsack, actress Fay Wray, and producer Merian C. Cooper would all reuinte for the giant gorilla move which would be filmed on several of its predecessor's sets. It's hard not to smile seeing Rainsford and Eve race across Kong's infamous log bridge (watch out for the spiders!). Their jog through the Death Fog swamp is replicated by several (doomed) sailors in the Brontosaurus chase sequence from the ape picture. Even the music is similarly composed and utilized.

The story and the film are worth your time, each for different reasons. Check 'em both out, if only so you can see the inspiration for a thousand subsequent B-action movies, notably 1993's Hard Target. It's John Woo directing Lance Henriksen trying to kill Jean-Claude Van Damme! How can you go wrong?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Censored Roger Rabbit? [1981]
Written by Gary K. Wolf

Who Framed Roger Rabbit [1988]
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

In a "making of" doc that accompanies the 2-disc DVD version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, executive producer Steven Spielberg enthuses about how he loved the idea of a human detective working with a zany cartoon rabbit. That makes about as much sense as watching Saving Private Ryan and saying, "Gee, that opening scene was sure intense; war must be great!"

Despite its postmodern trappings, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is fundamentally a mystery novel. Eddie Valiant is the archetypal private dick with a love for the sauce. His distaste for 'toons runs parallel to the casual xenophobia of classic noir. We could easily replace "'toon" with "colored" throughout the novel and come to a sardonically accurate portrait of racial integration (and white fear and disdain for it) in major metropolitan areas during the post-war era.

Wolf's 'toons aren't film stars; they're essentially models. Comic strips are reproductions of still photos of posing 'toons. Most 'toons speak by having word balloons appear above their heads. Some, like Jessica Rabbit, suppress this to "pass" for human.

There are no car chases with gruffly likable talking cabs or star-filled detours into Toontown. There's no "dip," no Judge Doom, and no weasel goon squad. Jessica is a heartless bitch who posed for some porno pics as she was clawing her way to the top. Roger is by turns a love-struck idiot and a plotting, back-stabbing little shit.

And there's a genie.

Basically, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are two entirely different stories with overlapping characters. They share exactly one line of dialogue (spoken by Baby Herman), and even that meets with slight alteration.

This is what bugs me about the standard-issue Disney adaptation. They take a perfectly good source work (be it a Märchen, a kid's story, or even a classic novel), bowdlerize it, toss in some catchy musical numbers and marketable plush-toy sidekicks and release it into the American collective unconscious like some sort of Burroughsian thought virus. And then they soak up all the credit and the cash. The Roger Rabbit that lives in the public's mind isn't Gary K. Wolf''s the Disney Corporation's. It lives alongside Disney's Snow White, Disney's Pinocchio, Disney's Aladdin, Disney's Hercules, and Disney's Quasimodo---all pale shadows of their original incarnations. And these shadows are further diluted by the continuous flood of straight-to-video sequels, theme park rides, and TV series.

Words fail me. Let's face it, you've probably already seen the movie. Try reading the book now. It's a surprisingly smart and gripping little novel. Introduce yourself to the real Roger Rabbit. Find out what a little rat bastard he is. And wonder why Spielberg and the Mousketeers thought the whole thing should be reduced to big, loud, expensive, broadly played, special-effects-laden family event film.

{Oh, that's right, it's the fucking money, stupid.}

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Full Metal Jacket

The Short-Timers [1979]
Written by Gustav Hasford

Full Metal Jacket [1987]
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Full Metal Jacket in my generation's (and subsequent generations') understanding of the Vietnam War. For thousands of American men and women, Vietnam is a historical abstraction, photos of green-clad grunts in worn history textbooks. For those who don't have a primary connection to the conflict (like a dad or uncle who served), and this includes myself, it seems as impenetrably past as World War II. Our introduction to the terrible realities of the war comes through film, particularly Jacket and Oliver Stone's Platoon. Of the two, Jacket seems to have become the (and I know how morbidly ironic this will sound) popular favorite. Maybe because "Me so horny" is part of the lexicon and a sampled staple of hip-hop. Maybe because R. Lee Ermey parlayed his drill instructor role into a well-deserved career. Or maybe because the film, like most of Kubrick's work, is a fucking masterpiece of cinema. But like most of Kubrick's work, the whole thing started with a book: former Combat Correspondent Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers.

I cannot begin to address in its entirety the issue of Kubrick and adaptation. Through the progress of this blog I hope to look at things on a case-by-case basis. At times, the director is an exacting cinematic transcriber of text to celluloid (c.f. A Clockwork Orange). Sometimes he plays fast and loose with his source (c.f. Dr. Strangelove). Jacket is something of a halfway point between the two; in fact, the film is divided into sections which are, respectively, a to-the-letter filming and a condensation of disparate material.

Hasford's "The Spirit of the Bayonet" concerns the Parris Island training of Combat Correspondant Private Joker. While Kubrick makes some slight changes here and there (Private Pyle is now a lardass rather than an actual dead ringer for Gomer Pyle), his fidelity to the book is at times uncanny. Consider the following passage (and you'll instantly recall the exact scene in the film):

"During our sixth week, Sergeant Gerheim orders us to double-time around the squad bay with our penises in our left hands and our weapons in our right hands, singing: This is my rifle, this is my gun; one is for fighting and one is for fun. And: I don't want no teen-aged queen; all I want is my M-14.
"Sergeant Gerheim orders us to name our rifles: 'This is the only pussy you people are going to get. Your days of finger-banging ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over. You're married to this piece, this weapon of iron and wood, and you will be faithful.
"We run. And we sing:
Well, I don't know
But I been told,
Eskimo pussy
Is mighty cold

Dead on, nah? If anything, Kubrick (with the assured participation of Ermey) elaborates on this section of the book. What Hasford describes in a sentence, Kubrick allows Ermey to stretch into whole minutes of profanely quotable film.

Joker's wartime experiences constitute the final two sections: "Body Count" and "Grunts." Kubrick compresses these two sections into the film's second half. The adaptation is not as literal, but retains the fundamental thrust of the narrative. The centerpieces of both book sections are sniper attacks on the company Joker is attached to (first as a correspondent, then as a grunt). The setup is mostly from "Body Count" (the woman sniper in a dilapidated building), but the slow picking off of the marines is straight outta "Grunts."

Other sequences and patches of description and dialogue undergo recombination for film. We get some downtime, but Joker and Rafter Man see The Green Berets and don't meet the "Me so horny" prostitute. The rat hunt is eliminated, but the dead VC's birthday is intact. "The Mickey Mouse Club Theme" even shows up, though its placement in the movie serves as a grim coda to the previous 120 or so minutes.

From the literary perspective (my supposed grounding in this monotonous process of blog-typing), what is most phenomenal about Full Metal Jacket is its ability to translate without translation. Hasford wrote The Short-Timers in the military-slang-filled language of the marine. Even the title is a euphemism for a draftee forced to serve 100 days in country. As we have seen, Kubrick keeps this particular dialect . It would seem like a daunting enterprise (remember how they had to give out glossaries to early screenings of Dune?), but through context and cultural osmosis the reader/viewer quickly becomes acclimated to the rhythms and content of speech and description.

Sadly, all of Gustav Hasford's works are OOP. I had to inter-library loan my copy of the novel (thanks to the Ann Arbor and Grand Blanc libraries!). Should you want to read the book (and you should) and such a route is not be open to you, the complete text of The Short-Timers is available at the author's website:

Read, learn and remember.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Illusionist

"Eisenheim the Illusionist" [1990]
Written by Steven Millhauser

The Illusionist [2006]
Written and Directed by Neil Burger

Millhauser's "Eisenheim" is a magical realist fable in the tradition of Borges. It concerns the career of the titular conjurer in fin de siècle Vienna. Eisenheim appears from the eastern outskirts of the Hapsburg Empire and begins to make a name for himself in the capital city. His early performances tend to be variations on current tricks, but as he progresses in skill, the tricks become more fantastic. Soon Eisenheim beings summoning ethereal entities; the controversy which arises parallels the contemporary clash and combination of science and spiritualism (should we miss this notion, Millhauser namedrops Madame Blavatsky).

Rival magicians attempt to upstage Eisenheim, but all fail. The best challenger of the lot is soon revealed to be Eisenheim himself in disguise. Ultimately though, the police, led by Herr Uhl, begin to get nervous about the illusionist's fame and power(s) and decide to arrest him (the arrest representing the final victory of the rational over the irrational). When they attempt to take him away, they find that Eisenheim himself is mere illusion.

An interesting Christ parallel runs through the story, although I don't know if it is intentional or not. Eisenheim is the son of a Jewish carpenter. He performs miracles which amaze the public but frighten the aristocracy. Here the parallel ends; Eisenheim is not portrayed as a messianic figure. But he does appear to have magic powers.

The film serves as a variation and extension of the short story. Several of Eisenheim's tricks are performed as they are described in the book. Burger removes the competing magicians angle (that apparently is the plot of 2006's other magician film, The Prestige) and adds a love story with Jessica Biel. Surprisingly, the addition of a WB-starlet love interest doesn't derail the proceedings. In fact, Fräulein Biel holds her own against Edward Norton and Rufus Sewell, a pleasant surprise.

A more unpleasent surprise is that everything really was an illusion. Herr Uhl pieces together what happened in a Usual Suspects-style series of flashbacks, and Eisenheim and his Duchess love live happily ever after in Sound of Music country. It's a modernist cop-out; don't worry folks, there's no such thing as spirits. It would be easier to swallow if we weren't given such amazing CGI effects throughout Eisenheim's performances. As 21st century viewers, we have a general grasp of the amazing technical wizardry involved in making Paul Giamatti's hand wave through Edward Norton. So there's no conceivable way that such an effect could be performed in the 19th century, especially before a live audience.

I liked the movie well enough, but I thought the end was a bit of a cheat. But that's the nature of magic and professional wrestling. You know it's all rigged. It's a sort of punishment for belief I suppose, something to douse the embers of child-like wonder smoldering in our hearts. Maybe I'm reading way too much into all of this. I would just like a little magic to be real once in a while.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


M*A*S*H [1968]
Written by Richard Hooker

M*A*S*H [1970]
Written by Ring Lardner, Jr.
Directed by Robert Altman

M*A*S*H tells the hilarious story of Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John as they experience the insanity of the war with the 4077th MASH unit. But you knew this already. Everybody knows it. Because it was on the TV show that somehow defined a generation and reinvented the medium, etc., etc. But I am not of that defined generation. In fact, I've tried to avoid the show on reruns and can successfully boast that I've not seen one episode in its entirety! So I come to this whole M*A*S*H thing untainted and ready for evaluation, starting with the original novel....

The book sits well in the company of Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 as an absurdist take on modern warfare. While the previously named classics both dealt with World War II, Hooker's novel deals with Korea (and does so in the shadow of escalation in Vietnam). Hooker's book is also the least absurd of the three texts. There are certainly moments of sheer comedy (the "human sacrifice" of Shaking Sammy and the promotional tour of Jesus Christ are two memorable sequences), but they are often buffeted by chapters of serious medical work. MASH units were alternatingly too busy by a third or too quiet for rational minds. The choppy chapter-by-chapter leaps from comedy to surgery are meant to illustrate this discontinuity of everyday life at the 4077.

I really enjoyed reading M*A*S*H, which made watching M*A*S*H all the more painful. Altman's film has not aged well; it plays like the obvious late 60s anti-establishment flick it is, a watering down and vulgarization (in both senses of the word) of a fantastic novel.

Lardner is given credit for the screenplay (he won an Oscar even), but the picture is pure Atman. You know that overlapping dialogue schtick that everyone raves about? Well, you get a lot of it here. Too much. What begins as an interesting attempt to provide realistic conversations quickly becomes a gimmick. We are immersed in a world where nobody listens and nobody shuts up. No, that makes it meaningful and workable. OK, it's like being in a restaurant full of loud talkers. It's not groundbreaking; it's annoying.

The film is also discomfortingly macho, especially since it's hailed as being a countercultural response to a stereotypically macho genre. Consider the story of the Painless Pole's suicide as it occurs in book and film. In the book, the Painless Pole is known to suffer from bouts of depression. He decides to commit suicide and consults the Swampmen (our protagonists) for advice. Concerned for a friend and excellent field dentist/poker game administrator, our boys give him some knock-out drops, pretending they're suicide capsules. While passed out, they tie a blue ribbon to his gargantuan member (dubbed the "Pride of Hamtramck"). He awakens and we get a variant of the old punchline, "I don't know where ya been, but I see ya won first prize!" In the film, the Pole finds himself impotent for the first time. As such, he decides he's going queer and that he must die before wholly giving over to his sickness. The Swampmen again drug the Pole (after the film's famous "Last Supper" sequence) and Hawkeye has a nurse give Painless some sexual healing. The next morning, the Pole is in great spirits and the nurse ships out with a wistful look on her face. As Vito Russo summarizes in The Celluloid Closet: "A good lay cures a sudden case of homosexuality."

A key player in the Pole's suicide is Dago Red, the unit's Catholic chaplain. While the book does skewer religious types (Shaking Sammy and Major Burns), Dago Red proves himself a remarkable man. He is a friend and even helps within the operating theatre when necessary. He is ribbed for his faith by the Swampmen, but he is also accepted whole-heartedly by them. In the film, Dago is an ineffectual, timid little man. He's a wimp in a world full of men, another piece of army bureaucracy and order which is put up for scorn. A truly compassionate character is reduced to simplistic buffoonery.

And we must mention the character of Hot Lips Houlihan! In both book and film she arrives at the 4077 as an uptight order-minded officer. In both she sides with Major Burns against the Swampmen. But after she is rebuffed by Colonel Blake, she all but disappears from the book. In the film, however, she must be broken and reinvented as a "proper" woman. So we get the "Hot Lips" radio sequence (not in the book) and the unveiling in the shower (also not in book). By the film's climatic football game, Hot Lips is an air-headed cheerleader.

Oh that football game. Wow, what a terrible piece of film that is! In case you didn't know you were watching a comedy, you get horrible slapstick-style music pumping from the soundtrack. And several shots of players toking dope. Maybe this abortion of a film would be funnier with some grass. I don't know, and I don't intend to waste any good God's green trying to find out.

Read the book for entertainment. It goes quick enough and is a well-written piece of literature within an established genre of post-modern fiction. If, even after my scathing attack, you do happen to watch the movie, think of it as a historical piece. I just warn you, suicide might be painless (as the cloying theme songs reminds us), but watching this clunker sure as shit isn't.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Come and See

Khatyn [1972]
Written by Ales Adamovich
Translated by Glenys Kozlov, Frances Longman, and Sharon McKee

Come and See [1985]
Written by Ales Adamovich and Elem Klimov
Directed by Elem Klimov

Flyora Gaishun is a blind college instructor. He sits on a bus with his wife, Glasha, and his son. Florya was a Belorussian partisan in World War II; he and the other surviving members of his unit are going to view the memorial in Khatyn (which is real and accurately described). On the ride out he remembers his days as a partisan, of the horrors he beheld. Interspersed with his war memories are scraps of conversation with his friend Boris Boky. The two discuss man and what is to be done with him. Boris, who was not in the war, argues that man is hopeless, that it's just a matter of time before another Hitler rises upon the tide of blood. Flyora, a veteran, argues for humanity. The My Lai massacre serves as a talking point.

Khatyn author Adamovich was himself a Belorussian partisan. While the novel is not strictly autobiographical, Adamovich's experiences give it the ring of authenticity. As the Nazis advanced through Belarus they systematically massacred entire villages and burned them to the ground. Often they would collect the townsfolk into a single building and set it on fire. One quarter of the population of Belarus was dead after World War II. Adamovich describes in detail the extermination of the village of Perekhod. At the height of horror of his description, he begins quoting testimony of Belorussian citizens who escaped the Nazis. The first quotation comes from the only survivor of the city of Khatyn. The survivors' accounts are followed by Nazi documentation of the massacres.

This is not light or easy reading. The text is dense and specific. There are few breaks in the narrative. There are no chapters, so the reader must stop in between paragraphs. While we know that Flyora, Glasha, Kosach, and others will survive (they're all on the bus and this is no Twilight Zone), there is a momentum to the work that compels further reading.

Klimov's film, its name taken from The Revelation of Saint John, is a masterpiece of cinema. The bus trip to Khatyn and the interludes with Boky are stripped away, leaving only the story of Flyora's education in dehumanization. It is one thing to read about a barn full of screaming, burning people. It is something entirely else to see it on screen. While bits and pieces of the novel are tinkered with for film, the major events are left in tact. Watching Flyora and Glasha fleeing though the marshes, wading armpit deep in primordial slime, gives the viewer the tactile point of reference unavailable to a reader. Aleksei Kravachenko stars as Flyora. As he travels through the war, we are often given close ups of his face. His expressions as he evolves from naive boy to hardened soldier are perfect. They transcend acting (and bypass melodrama altogether). It's chilling (for lack of better words, and there are no better words...this is a strictly moving pictorial phenomenon).

Klimov's use of borderline surreal imagery is perhaps best compared to Coppola's in Apocalypse Now. But while the American film is finally engulfed by the psychedelic madness of its final Kurtz sequence, Come and See never loses it believability. At worst it can be attacked for its occasional "artiness." (But doing so only makes the critic look like an ass.)

Opinons are divided on the film's penultimate scene. Flyora comes upon a portrait of "Hitler the Liberator." He shoots it. After each shot, we see war footage run backwards: We see concentration camps liberated and Pearl Harbor bombed; we see Paris fall and Hitler's willful Triumph. Then we loose sight of WWII. Weimar is marred by riots. Those crowds scurry exactly like the men hurtling out of WWI trenches. Finally we are faced by a portrait of Adolf Hitler as a baby. Flyora stops shooting.

What does it mean? It's an extremely visually satisfying sequence, but I'm buggered to pin an absolute meaning on it. There is quite a bit of footage/information that Flyora wouldn't have access to/understanding of, so the sequence is probably not meant as a literal visual transcription of a specific thought process. The best explanation I've come across is that Flyora is attempting to purge history. He is shooting everything that leads to his present experienced (using Blake's definition of the word "experience") situation. Finally, he is given the option of shooting the infant Hitler. Here he stops; he cannot kill a child, and thus he retains his humanity.

Adamovich is definitely a humanist. His work is not meant solely to depress or enrage us. Ture, we must never forget the horrors of our past, and we must be on constant guard against forces that would create new horrors (the latter point is emphasized in the novel by the Boky discussions). But in so doing we must live on as humans ourselves.

I would like to close this essay with a quotation from the novel, one which underscores the above interpretation. I'm not easily given in to sentiment, but this passage really took ahold of me. I now leave it to you:

"Never cease your efforts, even when it seems that all possibilities have been exhausted and the battle is finally lost; that has always been the rule of military commanders. But then it was only the fate of someone's authority, or even a state that was at stake. Today, it is the destiny of man on the planet for eternity. In a direct and not philosophical sense, it is a question of 'To be or not to be?' Too much is at stake and, no matter what the situation, man does not have the right to say: 'Enough! It's hopeless!'"

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [1974]
Written by Heinrich Böll
Translated by Leila Vennewitz

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [1975]
Written and Directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta

Subtitled How Violence Develops and Where it can Lead, Böll's Katharina Blum is an examination of how man can use the most vital tenants of a liberal democracy (the free press and the legal system) to suffocate himself. The narrator is something of a reporter himself; the story unfolds in the manner of a true-crime drama, with the terrible event described, attempts made to reconstruct "the last days," and a concluding short series of epilogue-like passages. The narrator constantly avoids violence and salaciousness, but sadly confesses that it does occur in the story and he must give the reader a true accounting of things!

It's a brilliant bit of satire: Böll mocks the sanctimonious yellow journalists by writing in a similarly hypocritical vein. Should we somehow miss the point, the novella opens with the warning: "Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of the Bild-Zeitung [Germany's equivalent to The New York Post apparently], such resemblance is neither intentional nor fortuitous, but unavoidable." It's an epigram worthy of Twain, telling the reader beforehand exactly the kind of scum with whom (s)he will be soon dealing.

Katharina is a housekeeper and sometime waitress/caterer. She meets a handsome man named Ludwig at a party and has him over for the night. The next morning Ludwig is gone and the police are at her door demanding his whereabouts. She is taken to the station for questioning, scrutinized in the most brusque fashion. The next day her face is on page one of the Bild-Zeitung as a gangster's moll. A chain of events is now set in motion involving Blum that will lead to her shooting the BZ reporter responsible for the smear campaign. While Blum is the focal point of the story, we see the effects of the incident on her employers the Blornas (the husband of whom is her lawyer), her mother, and anyone who tries to help her.

Chapters are fragmentary, often jumping around in the story's chronology. The effect is of someone pasting together the story as best as possible from scattered chunks of court testimony, BZ articles, secret sources, and simple rumors and allegations. In so doing, it is revealed to the reader just how secretly interconnected things are in a supposedly transparent democracy...and who's ass gets saved from the fire when embarrassing information comes to light.

The most notable change made by Schlöndorff and von Trotta is the (perhaps necessary, perhaps unnecessary) linearization of the story. We go from Thursday to Sunday with intertitles dividing the days. While this ultimately keeps Katharina's violent outburst a mystery, it does allow us to view the collaboration of the police and the BZ explicitly and immediately. It's a shift in emphasis that aides the dramatic: Blum's role as martyr is thus given more pathos and the malfeasance of the BZ is thus more dastardly portrayed. The text's satirical touches are also thus stripped away. The book's message is retained, but it is presented in darker, more serious tones.

The narrowing of focus means we also lose sight of the Blornas' storyline. It's Katharina's movie and we are blessed with a stunning performance by Angela Winkler. The incredible irony of the title is that, no matter the slander or setbacks, Blum never acts dishonorably. There are shades of Joan of Arc here, but Blum isn't acting on God or any man's behalf. She does what is right and honorable because that's the kind of woman she is. Such a complex character is hard to pull off, especially without crashing into Steel Magnolias territory. If this were a Hollywood production, complete with Meryl Streep in Oscar-bait performance, we'd get haunting string music, long shots of sunset vistas, and silent tears...all the shit that we've been taught symbolizes a strong woman, but in fact only signifies expensive melodrama. Winkler is given no such pedestrian cinematic crutches; she simply acts and is fantastic.

Not that melodrama doesn't sneak into the proceedings. There are two pseudo-car chases early on which seem a bit out of place (they weren't in the book). Katharina is present at the aftermath of Ludwig's capture and even gets a tearful last embrace with her beloved as the two cross paths while being escorted to their respective cells by the police. That last one is an emotional cop out along the lines of what I was ranting about above (in the Oscar telecast, it would be her clip in the Best Actress montage), but it does not diminish an otherwise spectacular performance.

The movie is beautiful, if not a bit one-dimensional at times. It's worth a watch, but you've got to read the book to get the full story.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1886]
Written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1931]
Written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is such a part of our culture that attempting to describe the plot at first seems a bit redundant. We all know that the virtuous Dr. Jekyll devises a potion which unleashes his inner evil, the nefarious Mr. Hyde. Since this revelation is the novella's final twist, one may even question the need to read the book at all. But Stevenson's book is well worth reading more for what you don't already know than what you do.

It is initially surprising how little the titular character(s) occur(s) within the text. The protagonist is the lawyer Utterson. It is through his investigations that we are introduced first to the foul character of Hyde, and then to the benevolent Jekyll. The most important events in the book are generally related to the reader through conversations between Utterson, the doctor Lanyon, and/or Jekyll's manservant Poole. The rest appear in letters from sealed envelopes, opened in the last twenty pages or so. In lesser hands all this textual circumambulation would quickly grow tiresome. But Stevenson balances each new discovery with a new twist, allowing the reader to piece together more of the story each go around.

What is also interesting are the characters of Jekyll and Hyde as they appear in the novella. Jekyll is a fifty-year-old man. Some of the impetus to create his potion comes from the need to deal with his younger debauches (whether to negate them or indulge more in them is an issue which could be debated). He is a perfect Victorian gentleman, completely compartmentalizing his unacceptable thoughts and letting them out sporadically in societally designated ways. Hyde is something altogether tougher to describe. There are no specific descriptions of him; "troglodytic" seems to be the best adjective used. He's much shorter than Jekyll, sometimes referred to as a dwarf, and has knotty, harry hands. He is also substantially younger, somewhere in his early twenties. As with Jekyll, we are never given descriptions of Hyde's debauches, though we are given testimony to his murder of Sir Danvers Carew, M. P. (We do not witness the act; we must rely on the account given by a maid who spied the attack from a balcony. )

Perhaps the best metaphor for a modern reading of Strange Case is that of a puzzle. You already know what it's going to look like; the fun comes from the reassembly of the image.

Any fun to be had with the 1931 film adaptation is surely unintentional. Time has not been kind to Frederic March's iconic Hyde. The arch-fiend now comes across like a Batman villain, overacting at every single turn. The film's Jekyll is rather young, so his Hyde (the unleashed id) is less the freed expressions of an old debauch than the world's horniest, geekiest monkey man. March obviously studied monkey behavior; his Hyde sniffs the air and swings about like the best of his primate kin. The special effects are passable. The initial transformation, achieved by filming makeup though a series of successive filters, is very well done (only to be undone by Hyde's hamming); each successive metamorphosis is less welcome because we know it will bog the film down in more ridiculousness.

Great liberties are taken with the text's plot. Utterson is utterly absent. Jekyll takes center stage. He's to be married to Muriel, the daughter of Carew, now a general. But he has a secret longing for a pretty bar girl named Ivy whom he saved on the way back from his fiancé's house. In case we didn't get the two sets of contrasts (Jekyll-Hyde and Muriel-Ivy), Mamoulian has the habit of employing split screens to push the symbolism. Sometimes it works, but it's a tad overused.

Oh, and man shouldn't tremble in God's domain. Admittedly, the hint of a moral does appear in Stevenson, but it's secondary to the mystery. We get no such shelter in the film; at one point Hyde even grips a bible and begs God for help. The final shot of the film, after Hyde has been done away with, is of a boiling kettle overflowing into its fire. You know, like Hell. Where the good Jekyll is going. 'Cause he transgressed the limits of human knowledge. (And he killed a hooker and a general, but it's the knowledge transgression thing that really puts him on the Almighty's shitlist.)

The 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a film classic which I really tried to give the benefit of the doubt. But it's creaky and melodramatic to the point of overkill. And all of its pre-Code excesses (moderate as they may be) are severely diluted by the sermonic tone of the film's last half hour. Give the book a read instead.