Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Daphne Du Maurier
"We all of us have our particular devil who rides us and torments us, and we must give battle in the end."
SPOILER ALERT, she had it coming. Probably.
Our narrator is a young English woman without a name. Well, no, she has a name. Several, I'd imagine, given the standard. She's making the possible beginnings of a living as the "companion" of a wealthy American broad whose name is not hidden from our eyes. The pair are ensconced in a Monte Carlo hotel, where the older woman makes sport of pouncing on other, more renowned guests to force familiarity upon them. One happens to be Maxim de Winter, an Englishman in his early 40s, celebrated not for how he lives but rather where he lives: Manderlay, an ancestral country estate on the Cornish coast. Mrs. Van Hopper is especially excited; Mr. de Winter has been a widower for not quite a year (wife's boat sunk, body not found for weeks, so sad) so he'll be especially receptive to her overtures.
Except he isn't; he's rather a dick, really, and Mrs. Van Hopper has barely any time to stew in her own offended (and offensive) juices before influenza forces her into bed. Her young friend, free to spend her afternoons as she pleases, retreats to the hotel restaurant for a nice lunch. Only one other guest had a similar idea: Maxim de Winter. He invites her to his table. She talks, he listens. He asks, she answers. For the next two weeks, a whirlwind acquaintance ensues. When Max tells the young lady she should drop that big fat zero and get with the lean hero, she seizes the opportunity. Sure, he's old enough to be her father, given to abrupt silences and gazes gone inexplicably distant, and there's the matter of those three unheard words, but life in Manderlay is basically the realization of a girlhood dream.
The new Mrs. de Winter should therefore be overjoyed, glowing with confidence, brimming with inner strength. Because that would make for a great story. No, she's still so young, lacking the reinforcements that defend her from raps and slaps of internal and external assailants. None proves harsher, more unrelenting, than Mrs. Danvers, a housekeeper who'd once worked for Rebecca's parents, who watched the little girl grow into the mistress of Manderlay.
From day one, Danvers attempts to undermine the "new" Mrs. de Winter psychologically, and indeed the sequel wife proves herself a walking faux pas from virtually the second she passes through the front doors. Not everyone on the staff is so distant and judgmental, at least not outwardly. She develops a surprising friendship with Frank Crawley, the man who acts as Maxim's agent and helps keep the estate running. Frank's a great guy, ready with a genuine smile and an honest sentence. Two things she's not really getting from the main man in her life, who's become tetchy and distant seemingly overnight. What happened to the lively, adventurous man she frolicked 'round Italy with just mere weeks ago?
The problem, she decides, is her. Or, perhaps, her.
She cannot help but worry how she appears to others. In this new milieu, perception equals reality. The annual costume ball at Manderlay beckons, the ideal event for the second Mrs. de Winter to show the haters and/or doubters that she possesses the grace and poise required of an illustrious hostess. Mrs. Danvers suggests she take a sartorial cue from a portrait of Caroline de Winter so beloved by Max. Perfect! Her frippery will wow the throng, reverberating for days after in all the important social circles, and her thoughtfulness will touch the heart of her distant spouse.
The night of the ball, Mrs. de Winter makes quite the splash indeed--right into a tub of dog blood and cat snot. Turns out, Rebecca wore the same thing at the last costume ball.
The poor girl is literally fretting herself ill. Mrs. Van Hopper--that wise, tactless hippopotamus!--tried to warn her. She is in over her head. Her lungs are filling. She is utterly fraudulent, a pretender to a throne unwillingly vacated.
Mrs. Danvers is there, once again, ready to follow up her mendacity with what she hopes will be the killing blow. Every negative thought that's muddied up the young woman's mind since her arrival is given sharp, cruel voice by the imperious housekeeper. How dare this uncultured mess of a little girl try to replace Rebecca! She will never be as beautiful, as urbane, as charming! The only proper next step--end her unjustly-inherited life.
The knife goes in, the guts come out, and that's what being the new wife is all about!
Before she can make that jump, the sky explodes. Sort of. Apparently 'round those parts, whenever a shipwreck has been discovered in the nearby waters, it's customary to send up some fireworks. Before long, it's revealed that not only a ship, but a body have been discovered. Both once belonging to Rebecca de Winter.
Even in death, the old wife is making the new one feel inept. She tells Maxim that she understands the truth: he is not truly in love with her, his heart belongs forever to Rebecca, he married her for the companionship, she will accept the role dutifully.
Maxim is bewildered. His heart? Rebecca? He despised that bitch! He walks over to his wife and kisses her, really kisses her, for the first time since their arrival at Manderlay, and the confessions leave his mouth like blood from a hemorrhaging wound: first, she is the woman he loves, madly/deeply; and second, Rebecca (who he most assuredly didn't like, much less love) didn't drown. She was murdered. By Maxim. With more malice than forethought. While all of their friends celebrated Rebecca as a beguiling marvel of the feminine form, Maxim and Maxim alone knew that she was in actuality a cruel, selfish whore.
It's as if a transformative thunderclap rang out across the night sky. Mrs. de Winter is at last emboldened. The truth has set her free. Mrs. Danvers has played her last mind game. The subsequent inquest determines that Rebecca de Winter died at her own hand (despite some controversy). The matter over, life at Manderlay can proceed. Nothing invigorates a stagnating marriage like murder!
Not everyone is so ready to swallow the verdict of suicide. Specifically, Jack Favell, Rebecca's first and "favorite" cousin, who comes to the estate reeking of top-shelf and bearing so-called "evidence" that proves Rebecca was murdered. Along the way, he lets slip they were lovers.
(Given that the narrator does not describe a sudden race to the nearest bathroom, I guess "cousin lovin'" wasn't uncommon behavior in that era.)
Maxim calls Favell's bluff, and summons the law, setting into motion an amazing series of revelations and developments that lead to the door of Dr. Baker, who reveals that he saw Rebecca de Winter shortly before she died, and diagnosed her with terminal cancer.
At last, the ghost of Manderlay has been busted! At least, that's how our narrator sees things. Her husband isn't so sure, and insists they begin the hours-long journey home immediately, rather than stay at a hotel overnight.
The man's gut proves peerless. Their car arrives just in time to see--Mrs. Danvers has had her revenge on Manderlay.
Rebecca is celebrated as a Gothic romance, a categorization that Daphne Du Maurier herself was puzzled by. To her, Rebecca was a study in toxic envy. It's not a love story, it's a hell of a ghost story just a level below heaven. Imagine Wuthering Heights had it been written by someone whose abilities had fully matured, an author savvy enough to recognize and avoid the pitfalls of grandiloquent prose, a woman who knew how to handle obvious symbolism with skill.
How many books have you read where the narrator is possibly the fourth most important character? Behind a building? For the best, turns out; the majority of Rebecca features the unnamed Mrs. de Winter hemmed up by her own infuriating passivity, barely dealing directly with a husband who's infantilized her from practically their first meeting, and shrinks under the harsh appraisals of a mere servant. ("Get some backbone, goddamn," I muttered before putting the book down to retrieve a cup of coffee. I drink a lot of coffee.) Of course, that timidity--that cowardice, really--is all the more flustering for its believability. She acknowledges the silliness of her obsession with a dead woman, but is unable to clear her mental fog until her husband clears his own.
Barren patches aside, character flaws notwithstanding, Rebecca is a classic. Do not listen to anyone that attempts to deride its accomplishment by brushing it off as "literature for women." I would further advise you not to listen to such a person on general principle.
Writers-Philip MacDonald & Michael Hogan (adaptation)
Joan Harrison & Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay)
"Selznick International Presents Its Picturization of Daphne du Maurier's Celebrated Novel."
After helming twenty-six films in his native Britain, Alfred Hitchcock made the jump to Hollywood, signing a seven-year contract with super-producer David O. Selznick. Their first project was an adaptation of a recent best-seller. Not surprising; Selznick found much green and gold down that particular path.
Selznick also preferred his films-from-books to remain as faithful as possible to the source material, anxious that audiences would react poorly to significant diversions in story. Rebecca is thus more or less the same on screen as on page. The onus was on not just Hitchcock but the actors to justify the film as something more than a cash-grab.
Our introduction to the two leads is taken from a bit later in the book, a change that jarred me at first, but I appreciate how effective it is in establishing the tension, much how a tightrope walker hesitates before step one. A man on the precipice of a cliff, staring not down but out. Is he about to jump?
He doesn't, of course; "he" being Maxim de Winter, portrayed by Laurence Olivier, one of the most actorly bastards ever to hit a mark. Fresh off a star-making turn in Wuthering Heights, Olivier's dashing looks, impeccable diction and overall expressive marvelousness makes him a far more daunting character than the man I envisioned whilst reading (Vincent van Gogh, non-ginger version). His Maxim is not only more handsome, but flirtier and less scatter-brained.
Joan Fontaine would not have been my first choice for Mrs. de Winter the II. I would have cast a more glamorous actress. Now, she is the proper choice, if you're concerned about story and verisimilitude. I don't consider her a classic beauty at her peak; I'd say she possessed a unique prettiness. So why would I have gone for a classic beauty? Merely to sell tickets. I mean, in this fantasy scenario I have the power to cast films, so "artistic integrity" is not a paramount concern of mine. What's funny, Joan Fontaine was considered to be quite the stunner back then, so if I tried explaining my decision to the studio in the same way I just explained it here, I'd find myself sorting mail with the quickness.
Mrs. de Winter does not so much "transform" as she "grows up a bit," and the journey from shrinking violet to humble daffodil is made more believable with the presence of an actress who is merely attractive rather than drop-jaw sexy. This Mrs. de Winter is supposed to lack the mien befitting a mistress of such a grand household. Fontaine fits the bill. At least to me.
Mrs. Danvers is somewhat de-clawed onscreen, but that's barely a stricture. She reigns still as a Godless mantis of a woman whose body temperature and resting heart rate both measure the same number (33). Hell, all the main actors are great. I expected that. What I didn't anticipate, what really disappointed me, were the changes made to the plot. From the moment Rebecca's boat is found, the plot is smashed together like the bananas, peanut butter and jelly in my favorite sandwich.
Too bad it tastes like the bologna in my least favorite sandwich.
Manderlay's fate is the same, but we're treated to the oddly-satisfying sight of Mrs. Danvers still inside (did light it, ain't trying to fight it). Further, Max is driving up with his friend Frank--not his wife. She's already there, helplessly watching the estate burn. The couple share a very early 20th-century embrace and some subtle symbolism sees us out.
I mentioned in the book review that the woman telling the story is arguably not even a top three character in that story. For the film, knock her down to five. This is a Alfred Hitchcock movie, meaning that the camera is also one of the lead actors. It's fine accomplishment here is in capturing the distances: between husband and wife, past and present, living and deceased.
Some of my readers might be stunned to learn that the producer of the film bristled at the director's vision and execution. In the end, both men compromised, and the end result was a film a half-million bucks over budget that made the money back five times over. It also nabbed two Oscars out of eleven nominations (Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Rebecca is the only film since 1936 to grab the biggest "O" without also picking up another one from either the acting, directing or writing categories. It's also the only Hitchcock film to receive the Academy's highest honor. Many if not most of those ubiquitous "Every Best Picture Winner Ever, Ranked" lists put Rebecca in the upper half. It's worth a watch.
But is it even a "Hitchcock film"?
Lest you call out that question for living under the bridge, consider what the man himself said to Francois Truffaut about Rebecca:
"It is not a Hitchcock film."
Hitch elaborated, thankfully, pointing out the script's lack of humor (gallows or otherwise), which definitely distinguishes it in his filmography. There's also the school of thought--Reactionary University, I believe it's called--that posits Rebecca as lesser-than since it was Hitchcock's debut American production and he was handcuffed by the studio. Creepy moments don't lack, but the fears are muted. Yes, implied violence and terror is a hallmark of Hitch, but with the shadow of Selznick looming, the paranoid joys of the story were smothered by a cloying soundtrack and the greater fear of alienating book readers with strict expectations.
It's possible the director felt some resentment re: the film's reception. Only one Hitchcock film ever won Hollywood's greatest prize, and it was Rebecca. Not North By Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window or Vertigo. None of those four films were even nominated for Best Picture. Hard to believe such egregious snubs wouldn't bruise a filmmaker's ego.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Both novel and film begin with the same line, one of the most famous in all literature. (Rebecca was one of the first films to utilize voice-over, although it thankfully does not appear throughout.) Very wise--this establishes Manderlay, and by extension life at Manderlay, as something that once was. It piques audience curiosity. The book goes one better; the narrator is talking from a contented future, so readers realize that whatever unfolds, the ending is ultimately a happy one in spite of incredible odds.
One obstacle facing the film is that of the narrator's imagination, so fond of running amok--I'm talking 600 mg of caffeine chased with a quick snort style running, which simply cannot be mimicked in any flick that fancies itself comprehensible. Hitchcock trusts the camera to do the dirty work, and it goes overtime to show us that what we see is secondary to what we do not see. Would that the script were up to snuff!
David Selznick's States-wide search for a suitable shooting location came up empty, necessitating the creation of a miniature model. The main detriment of not shooting at an actual estate is also the main detriment of Rebecca in black-and-white. The floral metaphors in the novel are so plentiful my nose began twitching fifty pages in. Malevolent rhododendrons, pallid azaleas, restrictive ivy...Du Maurier does a wonderful job of engaging the senses. Not to mention that nature does not judge, making the out of doors ideal for when Mrs. de Winter yearns to escape the limits of her new life.
The film falters at those crucial moments where the novel shines: the revelation of Rebecca's fate, the subsequent inquest into her death, and the appearance of cousin-porker Jack Favell. (They really messed him up, from a glassy-eyed lout given to community theater-level dramatics into a deviously focused man worth taking seriously.) Shame that such sloppy restructuring had to turn an unnerving psych-thriller into a lukewarm murder mystery.
The most significant change was one that had to be made, or else the film as written could not have been. Hollywood Production Code decreed that criminals in films be caught and punished, so Maxim's story of his final stand-off with Rebecca was altered to make her death accidental. A limp and lame revision that the writers were basically forced into making. All that build-up, climaxing with, "Wifey bad, wifey fall down go boom."
If you still hold onto hope that the book revolves around a touching love story, the film should dissuade you of that absurd notion. The relationship of Maxim and Friendless, Nameless has all the depth of a Cool Whip container. The only truly tender moment between them in the novel is the shared embrace after Maxim unburdens himself, and that didn't even make the film.
But the worst element of Rebecca is that damned soundtrack. Audiences will forever allow themselves to be emotionally manipulated by sound, even when they know better. The action on screen establishes tension just fine without the abrupt appearance of swelling strings to coat everything in a sickly syrup. "I didn't even realize the housekeeper had less than benevolent intentions until the violins pointed it out!"
Although the book is the clear winner, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that two of my favorite shots in any Hitchwork work can be seen in Rebecca: the silhouette of Mrs. Danvers against the transparent curtains, and the flaming, falling ceiling beams. Even average Hitchcock has moments that make me go, "Please trip-hammer heart, don't hurt me."
MIND THE GAP
Hitchcock told his lead actress--already on edge, knowing that Olivier had pushed for his own girlfriend in the role--that the cast and crew uniformly disliked her. Which they proved, by snubbing her whenever possible and reasonable--at the director's orders.
"I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool!" Marriage proposals before breakfast are the most trustworthy ones.
David O. Selznick purchased the film rights for $50,000. Adjusted for inflation, over $875,000.
In addition to some unconventionally amusing moments, Hitchcock's original script featured dialogue that implied a less-than wholesome relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers. Or, as the Production Code Administration so wonderfully put it, "quite inescapable inferences of sex perversion." Hitch, bless him, still managed to fit in the scene of Danvers lovingly stroking Rebecca's lingerie.
All for bringing back "starting an infant" as a euphemism for pregnancy.
What is the right sort of knowledge?
"Rebecca's favorite cousin." Not a bold assumption, considering he was bruising her beef curtains at a distasteful rate.
How quickly, and profoundly, a life can change. From gangrenous to glamorous in the tip of a vase.
"Her shadow has been between us" the seated man tells the kneeling woman, the space between them just sufficient to see the lamp in the background.
Mrs. Danvers and Maxim's sister are the worst type of women--they pit us against one another. At least with the sister it seems ingenuous. Still doesn't mean she's exempt from catching hands.
The idea of personally entertaining other people with anything other than the written word is so foreign to me. Party-goer forever, party-thrower never.
The narrator frequently refers to her honeymoon in Italy, usually to lament at how different her husband was. At Manderlay, he's straining against invisible reins. On honeymoon, he was "youthful and ardent in a hundred happy ways." In other words, he was a beast in bed.
"We are none of us," "They don't any of them," I talk that way and it's the 21st century. It's stupendous, and recommended. I can actually see the blood pressure of the other person drop.
Wonder what I left behind after my three-week stretch at the Days Inn on Dual Highway. Shallow desperation? Gut-manipulating disgust? Spiritual desolation?
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
"Mary Elizabeth is a vegetarian, and she hates her parents. She is also fluent in Spanish."
SPOILER ALERT, "against the finite" is the finest fight a person can ever engage in.
A coming-of-age debut novel, set in the early Nineties, in a Pittsburgh suburb, written in the epistolary style, loosely based on the author's life? Hoo boy.
Charlie is beginning his freshman year at high school. He prefers to observe, rather than participate, as fascinated with the possibilities of people than their actualities. His popularity suffers accordingly. The only real friend Charlie committed suicide, which was probably still only the second-most devastating loss he'd endured in fourteen years. His beloved aunt Helen, his mother's sister, who always let him stay up and watch Saturday Night Live, perished in a car crash on Charlie's seventh birthday.
Hit the poor kid hard.
Charlie is content to play the wall, speak low and carry a few twigs in his jeans pockets, until his English teacher (a man known simply as "Bill") urges him to socialize. Which he does, in the bleachers at a high school football game. Taking a chance on Patrick (also known around school as "Nothing") proves a smart move, as not only he but also his step-sister Sam immediately take a liking to Charlie. The trio hit up a diner, then a party, where Charlie sheds his shell with the help of a pot brownie.
The "Musketeer" thing is just what Charlie needs. Attending parties, meeting people, inhaling and swallowing--and crushing on Sam. Early on, Charlie made his feelings known, but Sam let him down gently. (She did, however, deign to bestow upon Charlie his first-ever kiss.) And since Sam gets a boyfriend (that she's really into), and Charlie gets a girlfriend (that he's not really into), no harm done.
Except this is a book about teenagers, so that ain't possible.
Patrick has a tormented romance of his own, inasmuch as clandestinely banging another the school's star quarterback can be called a "romance." Charlie tries to be there for his new pals, but he can barely endure his own relationship. His girlfriend, the parent-hating hispanohablante, has a tendency to dominate conversations and dis Charlie's gifts. The cord must be cut, but of course Charlie needs the scissors handed to him.
One mess follows one mess, and soon his life is a barely-navigable path from one day to the next. Family issues take center stage, and school provides scant respite. He's back to seeing a damn-persistent psychiatrist. Brad and Patrick are no longer seeing one another, and Charlie decides to put his own needs aside and help his buddy through a tough time. (Charlie does that quite a bit.) He reconnects with Sam, and just in time; she'll be off to Penn State soon. She asks Charlie why he never acted on his feelings after she and her boyfriend broke up. Turns out, Sam's indignation is less about her and more about him.
Everyone wants Charlie to put himself first for once. To address his feelings, regardless of how frightening they may be. But when things get too intimate between he and Sam, he puts on the quick kibosh. He's "not ready."
The rope Charlie's been grasping since the beginning of the school year has finally snapped in half. He lands in the hospital, where a sensitive doc helps him untangle his subconscious, allowing him to come to terms with the real reason he's so haunted by memories of Aunt Helen.
Some stories get told over and over, and "high school struggles" will forever be one of those stories. Despite initial reservations, I can't deny The Perks of Being a Wallflower its contextually massive accomplishment; an utterly real, absorbing account of a mentally ill teenage boy.
Mental wellness, adulthood, and internal plumbing won't hinder the reading experience. Not everyone leaves their poisonous delusions in adolescence. Not everyone recognizes the true value of friendship. Friends share--ideas, stories, dreams, fears. Friends keep each other from being swallowed whole by the world.
Further, Charlie is one of the most likable teens in all of fiction. Stephen Chbosky is no J.D. Salinger, but wow goddamn I would knock Holden Caufield over just to hang out with Charlie. (Am I the only one finished reading Catcher in the Rye and thought the wrong kid died?) At book's end, he's well on his way to fixing what is broken inside of him, which is incredibly satisfying. It doesn't ensure a smooth remaining three years in high school, doesn't mean tragedy can't revisit his sphere, but it's honest and profound development of character.
"We accept the love we think we deserve."
If you want it done right….
Whenever a film is released dealing with the ineluctable trials and tribulations of teenagers, reviewers of all stripes liken it to those John Hughes classic teen movies of the Eighties. And so it was with Perks of Being a Wallflower. But how many of those reviewers realized how close it came to being a John Hughes classic teen movie of the 21st century? When Mr. Mudd Productions (Juno, Ghost World) approached Chbosky about adapting his novel, the author bought the film rights back from the late director's family to create what is essentially a "greatest hits" edit. Certainly, as I lament (likely forever) the absence of "Burning Up" from The Immaculate Collection, I wish certain lines of dialogue or isolated incidents from the book could have been included. But Chbosky knew his stuff--I mean, it's his stuff. Everything on screen is to the service of Charlie's story, with none of the digression that can make long fiction so damn engrossing.
Hughes-ian elements exist: a killer soundtrack, young love gone awry, messy-haired wise-asses. Perks never hits the comedic heights of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but it plumbs the depths of its protagonist more than Hughes did in any of his movies.
Hard to imagine the great master would have done the tunnel sequences the same way, though.
Ah yes, the tunnel sequences. The most visual (and metaphorical) part of the book. Charlie and his new best friends, packed into their pick-up truck, when the tunnel into downtown beckons. The radio is cranked. Sam climbs out onto the bed of the truck and stands, giving herself over to the macrorush while Charlie experiences the absence of borders. Then, almost a year later, the pick up is once more speeding through the tunnel, only this time, Charlie is the one on his feet, feeling the wind, feeling so alive that death is an impossibility, heading towards the light but not even caring to open his eyes.
So many people--be they paid for their opinion or not--cite this as the highlight of the film. And I won't disagree; I just think the "my girlfriend's kind of a pushy twat" montage set to "Pretend We're Dead" by L7 needs more love.
The success of Chbosky's debut film sent his debut novel--by then entering it's teens--onto the New York Times Bestseller List. Almost as impressively, his script armed a Writers Guild of America nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Buoyed by an abundance of heart and smarts, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a cool little teen movie.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
And maybe that's all it should have been.
A character-driven narrative will always be tricky to translate. Revelations can be doled out in increments. "We accept the love we think we deserve" hurts much more than the movie lets on. I miss the domestic dynamics that drive the novel. There's an argument between Charlie's older siblings that Dave Meltzer gave four stars. But like Steve told Adam, "No way you can fit all that."
The Aunt Helen revelation is foreshadowed more heavily in the book. Again, we miss out on exactly how much his memories of her impact Charlie, but it's worth the loss.
If confusion is sex, and adolescence is confusion, then adolescence is sex, then why is The Perks of Being a Wallflower a PG-13 flick? Meaning rather than "What the fuck is wrong with you?" during a critical moment, we get "What the hell's wrong with you?" Which strips the scene of some potency, and denies me the sound of Emma Watson uttering the f-word.
Ah, the cast. None of them teen-aged, yet each up to their task. Logan Lerman comes equipped with pale skin and wary glances--nailed it, nerd. His Charlie is a tad funnier and bolder than the book Charlie, and much less prone to crying whenever anyone looks at him funny.
Emma Watson's pixie cut doesn't jibe with book Sam, but her kittenish charm does. After a shaky start, her American accent proves durable and non-distracting. (Extra credit for being such an outspoken fan of the novel.)
I didn't recognize much of Patrick in Ezra Miller's relentlessly smart-alecky portrayal. Or was Charlie just that unreliable a narrator?
Even better questions…can art teach empathy? Can apathy be learned, or unlearned? Dunno, dunno, just don't. I do know that hurt people hurt people, and I know that most people don't wear green well. The perks of being a wallflower vs. the hazards of being a one-way mirror: heightened sensitivity to what you feel and what you don't feel. The movie isn't as moody, but that doesn't indicate dishonesty--it just doesn't want to pummel the audience. Attractive actors, appealing locations, awesome tunes, movie time and the lifting is (relatively) easy.
Charlie's relationship with his English teacher is so much more satisfying in the novel, and Paul Rudd ain't a factor in why. There's a nice tidy vision of the kindly, wise authority figure that Chbosky leans on. Does the overall story suffer? No. But the teacher in the book--simply, "Bill"--is more than words, be they his or those of the great English-language authors. He brings Charlie into his world, however briefly, and thus plays an enormous role in his breakthrough.
The huge change is the "the tunnel song." In the book, it's Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." The movie changes that to David Bowie's "Heroes." I'm a fan of the switch. Not just because "Heroes" is a superior song, it's a more directly visual one as well. "Landslide" is staring at a page until the words blur. Movies want to do the blurring for us.
The book is a heart-squeezing ride alongside a mental tornado. The movie is the video of that ride someone shot from the passenger seat.
MIND THE GAP
Charlie's sister receives a mixtape and promptly hands it off to him. This happens in both book and film, but only in the former do we get, "He included many songs by the Smiths," a sentence which made me snort so hard I coughed.
Charlie, Sam and Patrick attend a party where the host hands out Milwaukee's Best. It doesn't seem to be an ironic gesture.
Initially, gay outcast Patrick being such a passionate fan of high school football might seem odd, even given the sport's popularity in Pennsylvania. Then we learn he's porking the QB.
Bill gives Charlie The Great Gatsby, followed by On the Road. Christ if that ain't the literary equivalent of one week in Paris followed by one week in Flint.
Bless everyone who hasn't had A Separate Peace ruined for them by The Simpsons.
How does Sam in the movie know the Smiths--love the Smiths--yet not know Bowie? Morrissey is basically Bowie for asexuals. Mr. Mudd Productions is 2-for-3 in female characters with inexplicable holes in their musical knowledge. (3-for-3 in Sonic Youth mentions, though!)
How different would high school have been for me had I been blessed with Charlie's gumption? I never attended any events at school, no dances, no games, never approached anyone and was approached only once, by a heavyset black girl.
No idea of any part of her name. We shared no classes. One morning, at some time in the half hour between when the school doors opened and when the school day started, this girl walks in to my "homeroom" class. She may or may not have introduced herself; I remember telling her my name. She then asked me to follow her out into the hall. Bemused at the attention, wary of defiance, I did as told.
Dozens of students were milling in the hall, talking, slamming locker doors. She guided me to a couple of her friends, including a stringbean with a high-top fade who regarded me as though I had stinkbugs crawling all over my face.
"See?" she said, huge smile on her round face. "It doesn't hurt to get to know people."
I never saw that girl before that day. I never saw her any day after.
To improve your writing, write. To improve your life, live. When Charlie gets overwhelmed, he tries his hand at a story. An attempt stymied after one sentence. Thankfully he doesn't give up so easily on himself.
Screw Uncle Billy. I wish someone would unearth a deleted scene of George and Harry beating him half-sensible as the population of Bedford Falls continues singing in the Bailey living room.
This is the Slits reggae reference!
Throw in a Peanuts ref, too, why not.
Maybe that was my problem in high school--no one ever got me stoned. "Hey fat girl, have a brownie." Way to drop the ball.
"To Charlie," indeed.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
"I don't understand girls like you."
SPOILER ALERT, if it's not one thing, it's your mother.
Maria (as in "pariah") Wyeth exists in the state of California. She's a failed actress in her mid-thirties, losing her mind along with her looks. She is prone to crying jags and casual sex. A woman in free fall, except the costs are exorbitant.
Did she jump, or was she pushed?
Per ex-husband/shit-hot film director Carter, Maria doesn't grasp "friendship, conversation, the normal amenities of social exchange." He intends this as an insult. No doubt, Maria knows how to party-poop in cities all over California and beyond, driven further and further into herself by the insouciant depravity of her comrades.
The freeway is just that and then some. She drives further and further away from everyone else, until the desire to reconnect sends her to a diner, a motel, anywhere with a phone.
The prospect of new life fails to remedy matters; after all, Maria already has one very young daughter in the hospital (a victim of brain damage). Best to abort and bleed copiously on a movie set.
Hooray for that place!
Directors will stop calling, but every party needs its has-beens to show up, get high, fuck the will-be's and steal their Ferraris.
Was he a good lay? is all her friends want to know.
Friends. Before we go any further, Maria's friends are not really. They are, really, artless manipulators who treat her as though she were some obscene child, refusing to help extricate her from the boiling pot until she stops being so unpleasant in public and proves herself worthy of basic compassion. Carter, Helene, Susannah, Carlotta--human smegma. The clamor of depression, addiction, abuse and infidelity is integral to maintaining the illusion of a glamorous life, and they've no qualms with any of it.
Oh, a couple good eggs exist. Les Goodwin--cool symbolism, bro--and BZ, a gay, married film producer whose empathy for Maria makes him seem practically Christ-like. Like her, he recognizes the game and continues to play. Keeping up appearances, impressing the proper people at precise times, these are the techniques of the smart player. With dedication and persistence, and a willingness to compromise, they will come out on top.
Maria is carrying around an exhausted and exhausting cynicism over the whole nonsense, but BZ doesn't even blink. He's been there, and where he went afterward is a place Maria will soon visit.
And it's such a goddamn shame.
Maria Wyeth, a safe person to be suicidal around--indeed, she's an an ideal person to actually kill yourself in front of, since her self-absorption precludes acute recognition of another's turmoil. Maria is her father's daughter; a gambler, not a guidance counselor.
"I know what 'nothing' means, and keep on playing."
She needed an ace, and drew a three. So long as a chip stack sits by her elbow, Maria will keep playing.
With Slouching Towards Bethlehem, an essay collection published just two years before Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion proved that mere magazine articles could qualify as serious literature. Her second work of fiction (coming seven years after her first) is a strong contender for the never-to-be-awarded title of "The Great American Novel."
As the protagonist hazes along, the hours of the days of the weeks of the months in fragments, so too does the structure. There are over 84 chapters (one only twenty-eight words in length) of destitution and deterioration, and if you want linear storytelling, grab a pen, flip to the cover page, draw a straight line, and then write "It was a dark and stormy night" on top of that bitch.
Is it odd that I somehow envy Maria? She untangled the great existential knot. She stared into the abyss with sunglasses on. She proved it possible to embrace purposelessness and still cry all over its shoulder. Once you reach that level of perception, life and death are indistinguishable, enabling you to finally enjoying one of them.
Writers-Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne
Second straight review where a novelist adapted their own work.
Second straight review where the movie uses voice-over. Necessary in both cases. Thankfully, Play It As It Lays uses the technique sparingly.
Play It As It Lays does almost everything sparingly.
Maria Wyeth is the type of woman who will smash a mirror, then immediately call her agent to send a new one. Her circle is imperfect and small. Every relationship she has can't help but be a tumultuous one.
If you've read the story, you've seen the story: hospitalized daughter, abortion, grand theft auto, the sadly inevitable fate of the nice guy. Oh, and driving. Losing her possession of self, one mile per hour at a time.
Th film isn't boring, but it's not unforgettable. It doesn't transcend borders.
Yeah, that's a sin now.
I admit to chuckling in commiseration at the sight of Maria seated at a dinner table with a handful of other jagoffs, looking seconds away from breaking a wine glass and masturbating with the stem.
The acting is fine. Tuesday Weld plays Maria as a dazed doll with long blonde hair, a woman eager to be heard but frightened of being listened to. I got none of her nervous titters and incomplete facial expressions from my reading of the book, but even hearing the dialogue spoken with inflection was just weird.
Anthony Perkins steals the show (petty theft) as BZ, despite looking like Warren Beatty as a Mod.
If any of the larger points whizz by--existentialist dread, fertility--the camera will help by pulling back, for in vastness is wisdom.
No notes, no chords; only uproar.
Alas, not enough.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Play It As It Lays made Time magazine's list of the "100 Best English Language Novels, 1923-2005." If the movie made any laudatory Top 100 list, I would scrapped this entire review and replaced it with a blog post entitled "Opinions Are Weapons and Some People Are Playing With Cap Guns."
Didion and her husband do an admirable job transferring the terse, highly visual prose onto the script format. Frank Perry's direction is unremarkable, meaning cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth bore the burden of holding audience attention. Following the book's advice to "take the long view," the film chooses to minimize the actors. Setting matters. Setting surrounds, setting encloses. Those palm trees, those beach front homes, those long and winding roads, are all advertisements for life on planet Earth.
Yeah, well, who pays attention to the commercials anyway?
The visual metaphors ain't close to subtle. The scene with the patrolman--"'You just like the freeway, huh?"--is just saved by the camera work and I swear, Jake Roberts didn't bring out the snake as much as this movie does. Crumbling underneath the weight of its own subtext, all it offers us in the end is pretty lights. I felt empty by the end (contrasted with the book leaving me emptied--massive emotional discrepancy).
How I saw the characters in my head versus how they appeared on screen is of no consequence. They are no less reprehensible for being subjectively physically attractive. Their ethical passivity makes me want to put on these boxing gloves I got from Panama Lewis and start punching faces. People who swear their worst personal failing is "caring too much" but who in fact care about practically nothing? Play It As It Lays is sick with them.
Joan Didion wrote or co-wrote a total of six films; don't let your introduction to her be one of them. That's like never calling from the blinds. Pick up one of her books and go all in. Don't concern yourself with acclimation. Didion's fond of changing the water at will. Not just heat and chill, but texture and smell.
MIND THE GAP
Play It As It Lays breaks a big rule of fiction writing. The book begins with three short first person monologues before switching to "close" third person, before returning again to first person for the ending. Didion wanted the entire novel to be in the first person, but couldn't make it work. Realizing her choices were either keep the odd POV shifts or just shuck the whole damned thing, Joan played the hand she was dealt. Recommended for the shrewdest gamblers only.
Iago isn't evil. No one ever has been evil, just irreparably damaged. The first book I reviewed in this series laid it out simplain.
"(T)he house crackled with malign electricity." I so love writing that makes me want to break a pen off in my forearm.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Presence makes the mind reel with sarcastic replies.
Play your hand. It's your hand. Does no good to reach across the table and snatch another player's cards in the hopes they're not as crap.
If it weren't for luck, I'd never die.
There are certainly worse "ism"'s than "alcoholism."
When food starts turning on a person, that's one thing. When it starts turning into…
Wildfires and tranquil waters! Dry drinks and wet sheets! California is for drivers. I'm a proud non-member of that club, but between the writings of Didion and Kim Gordon, I'm sure I'll wind up spending up at least one year of my life there one day, bumming rides when I can't ride buses, eating an average of 3.6 burritos a week and drinking Coke out of glass bottles.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
This is a war and war is hell and what the hell and to hell with it.
SPOILER ALERT, absolutely nothin'. Absolutely nothin'.
Joe Bonham did not spend his days and nights in small-town Colorado wishing to be a quadruple amputee when he grew up. He didn't want to go off to fight in a war, either, much less the one to end them all, but he had very little choice in the matter. To die for one's country is presumably a great thing, but what of Joe's fate? Is it almost-great?
See, Joe didn't just lose his arms and legs. His eyes, ears, nose, mouth--also gone. His mind is seemingly the only thing Joe hasn't lost. Not yet.
Joe is no longer a man; he once was, and what he now is, is too much to bear. Joe is a prisoner of (what remains of) his body. With the gradual realization of his unfathomable condition, Joe seeks salvation. Thoughts race around inside his head, each one an attempt to recapture the past and mollify the present. Joe has lost so much, but he has more time than he knows what to do with. What drives a man more than time? What time is it, how much time do I have, how much time is left?
The storm of activity in his brain ranges in intensity, from Rockwellesque to Cronbergian, peaking with an appearance from Jesus Christ, who turns out to be a sort of pied piper for the U.S. government.
After several years of isolation, Joe attempts communication via Morse code. He uses his head to tap out dots and dashes against the pillow, stopping only when exhausted. He didn't come across the potential solution overnight, and doesn't expect instant results. Finally, finally, a nurse able to feel something other than facile sympathy realizes Joe's intentions and rushes to alert some Very Important Men, who have just one question for the living dead man.
What does he want?
He wants to serve the good ol' US of A in a way no man ever has before: as a traveling freak show. A patriot in a glass display case, a new way to see warfare. Forget the highfalutin' anthems, the creaseless uniforms, the shiny medals…let every man woman and child come and face the truth, with the help of a poor kid who has no face but plenty of truth.
Joe's breakthrough was in vain. The military can't afford public exposure to this young man-turned-medical curiosity. Joe Bonham will continue floating in limbo, until someone somewhere decides to show him mercy.
From 1935-1939, the National Book Awards honored the "Most Original Book" (fiction or non-fiction). Johnny Got His Gun was the last winner, and as the only one I've read it was clearly the cream of a scant crop. The story of a twenty-year-old who is as close to dead as the living are allowed is pretty damn novel…then consider the absence of quotation marks and commas, and no italics to indicate transitions between flashbacks/present, waking/sleeping.
But forget the textual oddities; Johnny Got His Gun is an emotionally devastating read. My first attempt (nearly three decades ago!) went unwell. My second shot, I finished it in less than forty-eight hours.
Set during World War I, released in time for the sequel, this is the sort of "required read" that changes lives. Just be prepared. This is a novel so stark that the "s" lacks sibilance and the crack of the "k" echoes. It's short of a masterpiece; parts are overwritten, and not in the sense of florid prose run amok, oh Lord no. Simply, Trumbo wrote too many words. It's one thing to ensnare readers in the hell-pit with the alleged hero, but editing is a thing, an important thing. I had the same goddamn complaint about Catch-22. Make the point. Make the point over. Do not make the point over and over.
What if, what if. What if financing hadn't fallen through, and surrealist genius Luis Buñuel directed the film version of Dalton Trumbo's brutal antiwar classic. Hell, what if Dalton Trumbo had sought out another director, one with actual experience, instead of choosing to make to make his directorial debut at the age of 66?
The "what if" game…I ain't seen a person win it yet.
Set during World War I, released during the Vietnam War, Johnny Got His Gun kicks off with footage of the "masters of men," those leaders who declare war, who determine when and where it shall be fought, and who will be doing the fighting (spoiler: not them). Perfect. Don't let those grim reapers off the hook.
But maybe hire someone with film experience for the lead role? Oh, Timothy Bottoms ain't bad; he's got one of those faces, like a Ryan O'Neal you don't want to punch, and his very next role was in the vastly superior The Last Picture Show. The fault lies mainly with Dalton Trumbo's trepidation to take his source material to a level beyond, to test the limits of the visual medium. The addition of voice-over is a no-brainer; would that Bottoms's line readings were uniformly naturalistic. Likewise the other nurses and high-ranking Army officers who stop by to gawk and press. Some are stoic, some are shaken, but none of them inspire any significant reaction. Even the nurse who fancies herself Joe's angel of mercy is bland as a baby's diet. Likewise the scenes between Joe and Kareen--ideally, touching and tender. Realistically, one slice of white bread professing its love for another slice of white bread. (Not to mention, Kareen's bedroom has obviously been decorated with the express purpose of pulverizing sexual urges.)
Dalton Trumbo as a director was well-meaning and ill-equipped. Could Luis Buñuel have crafted a masterpiece worthy of keeping company with the other timeless films of the decade? Maybe. Hell, forget a legendary director, one with some actual experience would have done a tighter turn.
All that said, how in the hopping hell did Johnny Got His Gun receive the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes? French mania at the sight and sound of America owning up to faulty machinery? Residual sympathy for one of the "Hollywood Ten"?
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
No suspense here. The book is a minor classic. The movie? Minor miracle I made it to the end. I bitched about the novel's occasional bloat and well, the big-screen adaptation is similarly, and more frequently, afflicted.
The film tries to condense Joe Bonham's mental frenzy into a "greatest hits" package; single disc, at that. The breaks between present and past are blatant, which is great for a movie, generally. Not so here; the book set my imagination whizzing and popping with the introduction of each new memory, each new image, and I thought to myself, what else can this unfortunate bastard to besides submit to the rush? Good experiences, bad experiences, neutral experiences, inside/outside, friends and family, birthdays and holidays, sex and love, seeking and growing, yes, gimme the mash-up of sentiments and sentences, I can still feel I want to keep feeling. I would spend several minutes lingering on a single page, paralyzed momentarily by reveries of my own childhood spent alongside a mother who rarely left the kitchen. Jars of fruit, tins of cookies, pans of breaded chicken, pots of boiling pasta, suffocating my senses…suddenly, a syllogism took my seat at the table:
ONLY BAD PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE IN HELL
ALL WAR IS HELL
ONLY BAD PEOPLE WANT WAR
And if that sounds simplistic or heavy-handed, I guess the dream sequences in the film version of Johnny Got His Gun corrupted me. The sole success stories are Joe's fantastical discussions with Jesus Christ (played by the awesome Donald Sutherland). Trumbo smartly uses their conversations to cover a few of the dilemmas Joe struggled with in the beginning, such as distinguishing reality from dreams. These sequences are touching, even eloquent. The agonized scream of Jesus as the train of young men accelerates towards the terminus ("the high thin music of death," per the novel) is the Christian counterpart of "diabolus in musica."
The rest are clumsy attempts at surrealist cinema which don't begin to compensate for the film's greatest failing: treating Joe Bonham as nothing more than a metaphor, a stand-in for the working class puppets of America. We don't get to know him as intimately in the movie, and therefore it's difficult to take much more away at the end of two hours other than: wow, that was creepy. The book does not allow the reader to forget his humanity. Indeed, it is the linchpin of the whole tragic story. He is defenseless. He is bereft of hope. Forget walking or talking…Joe Bonham will never sit or stand again, and he's only breathing thanks to a machine, but he is not a robot, not a piece of meat. He is a human being.
The book features Jose, the world's most honorable bakery employee. The movie doesn't. The book concludes in a storm of anger and defiance. The movie fades out along with Joe, pleading.
MIND THE GAP
Like millions born after 1975, my first exposure to the film version of Johnny Got His Gun came via the video for Metallica's late Eighties classic, "One." Given that singer/guitarist James Hetfield took his inspiration from the novel, it only made sense to edit in clips and audio from the movie around footage of the band performing in a suitably drab room. Of course that piqued my interest in the movie, but finding the book proved easier. I didn't finish it though, as I was barely twelve years old and really put off by the lack of quotes.
No hyperbole zone, just watch the Metallica vid. You get the best parts of a mediocre movie and a crusher tune.
The story of Joe Bonham is just so damn unfair. All Joe wanted was to be alive, free, independent, not buggin' nobody nor a body buggin' him, maybe settle down and raise a family, be an admirable man just like the one what raised him, and instead? Another casualty of war.
War--an excuse for safe men to speak dangerous words and have thousands of other men back them up on his behalf. Should the fight be taken up only by those who want to fight, who believe that dying for democracy is the noblest sacrifice? Is Joe--and by extension, people who share Joe's beliefs--the epitome of selfishness, unable to care about a future they will have no active part in?
Trumbo wrote the novel after reading a newspaper article on a Canadian soldier in the First World War who returned home a quad amputee. That soldier, most likely, was Ethelbert Christie.
Although he didn't get to direct, Luis Buñuel apparently wrote the scenes with Jesus Christ. Explains the high quality.
Would you rather be a human vegetable or a slab of meat with a brain?
Hearkening back to simpler times is common; no matter the depth of our longing, we still have new memories to anticipate. A thirty-year-old wistfully remembering themselves at the age of ten will one day be a sixty-year-old recalling their thirties. Joe was twenty, remembering his childhood as the time when he could breathe in the world, feel the sun and enjoy companionship. When Joe is thirty, what will he remember? Ten years ago, when his naive ass boarded a train to board a plane to fight for men and women who really didn't care what happened to him personally so long as America could cry "Victory!" at the end?
The night before Joe shuffles off to war, he spends some quality time with his girlfriend Kareen at her place. Her dad walks in and berates them--for wasting time with foreplay on the couch. He encourages them to take the action to the bedroom. The next morning, he even brings them breakfast in bed! "Y'all must be plum wore out after a night of plowin'. Here, I brung ya some biscuits."*
While reading the novel, I couldn't keep from wondering--does his mother know? His younger sisters? But how could they, the hospital staff, the military men who visit to observe, they don't even know who he is! Besides a gross clump of flesh. Christ, his family will think he died, and they'll only be three-fourths right!
Thanks to the novel, Joe's dream of being an "educational exhibit" came true, after all. Ooh what a lucky man.
*not actual dialogue from the book, more's the pity.
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
SPOILER ALERT, wow, I haven't done that in awhile.
Mary Crane is surrounded by avaricious men. Real estate wheelers and dealers stacking dollars in innumerable piles. A hardware store owner in perpetual debt who keeps promising to make a dishonest woman of her some day soon. When Mary's employer entrusts her with $40,000 of a client's money, she acts on impulse and drives off not to the bank, but towards the new and improved life such an influx of cash will eventually bring.
Once the storm clouds pass.
The drive to see her man Sam is fraught with second-guessing and scenarios of varying likelihood. Not soon enough, Mary realizes she's turned off the main highway. In need of some 3Z TLC, she stops at the hardly-bustling Bates Motel.
Norman Bates is surrounded by nettlesome women. His mother, holder of the world's shortest leash and sharpest tongue. And now this alluring, friendly woman willing to share nothing more than dinner with him.
A woman who has sent Norman's mother into a frothing rage.
Norman waddles through the middle of life, jumping at escape routes whenever he spots them--books on unsavory subjects, alcohol, taxidermy. He lives with his mother in a bleak, imposing house next to the motel, which is where he and Mary sup on cold cuts and coffee. She rather pities the jittery surplus of flesh sitting across from her stirring femininity, listening politely as he explains that his mother is far from well yet near-total in her power over him. When Mary suggests that relocation might be for the best of both mother and son, Norman loses his cool. Society is so quick to judge and punish the people it deems as "crazy," yet so slow to actually help them. Who, he wants to know, hasn't gone a little bit out of their mind every now and again?
In the safety of her room, Mary sees the sense in the sad man's outburst. Didn't she have her own temporary loss of sanity just that afternoon, when she let pent-up frustrations cloud her better judgment? She decides to spend the night at the motel, then drive back home to throw herself on the mercy of her boss (and the dude she jacked the fat envelope of cash from).
A peephole does not allow one to read the thoughts of another, but it does allow one to watch another's thoughts. The very sight of a disrobing Mary, combined with generous shots of liquor, is enough to overwhelm the balding fat-ass into unconsciousness. When Norman awakens, he hears the shower water running in Mary's room. He enters, to discover that mother made good on her threat.
Living near a swamp has more benefits than drawbacks.
After a week, people begin missing Mary Crane. Younger sister Lila visits Sam at his hardware store and insists that he help locate his girlfriend. The pair are joined by Milton Arbogast, a private investigator hired by the man whose forty grand Mary skipped state with. He followed Lila suspecting she of all people would know Mary's whereabouts, but soon he's satisfied that neither she nor Sam are in the loop.
The search leads Arbogast to the Bates Motel. He's able to match Mary's handwriting in the guest registry with an envelope he brought along, and begins pestering an unhelpful Norman for more information. Arbogast mentions the house, the woman he saw looking through a window, would she be of any help? Much wrangling ensues, until at last the not-cop convinces Norman that he can return with a warrant to search any damn where he pleases.
While Norman goes to "prepare" his mother, Arbogast calls Lila and reports the latest, promising to keep in touch. His failure to do so spurs Lila and Sam into action. They speak with the sheriff, who suspects that the PI is snowing them. How could he speak to Norman's mother when the lady's been dead for the past twenty years?
Lila can no longer sit idly by, and Sam now actually seems bothered. Together they book a room at the Bates Motel, making sure it's the same one Mary occupied during her aborted stay. One very intriguing piece of evidence later, Lila asks Sam to keep Norman occupied while she drives back into town to alert the sheriff.
Norman is not so naive as he may seem, though; after several drinks, he informs Sam that Lila did not go out for cigarettes, as she claimed. No, he saw her stop and take a detour at the house. What, who, would Lila be looking for? Norman cracks Sam upside the head with his liquor bottle and decides to find out.
Perhaps insufficiently creeped out by what she found in the upstairs rooms, Lila descends into the cellar and happens upon the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates. Lila promptly loses her mind; Norman, sensing a kindred spirit, barges into the room, knife in hand. And wig on head. And granny dress around body.
Only to wind up subdued by Sam. Proof that women take forever to get dressed, even if they're men.
Norman escapes prison time by virtue of dissociative identity disorder, which Sam explains to Lila. 'Cause they're a couple now, and that's not even a little icky!
Robert Bloch's Psycho: no frills, yes chills. Blunt as an axe to the throat, pushing along with an unshowy agility.
In other words, an easy book to muck up.
So good for, well, everybody that a glowing review in the New York Times convinced one of the greatest film directors ever to pick up a copy of Psycho and examine the fuss for himself. Duly intrigued, the man some called "Hitch" forked over $9,500 for the film rights and proceeded to shoot the prototypical slasher flick.
Bloch once estimated that the film script borrowed "ninety percent" of his work, and I can vouch. No need to repeat the plot, so I'll not. The devil haunts the details, but the angels bless the structure. A sublime understanding of distillation and dissemination separate the great adaptations from the rest of the pack. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano put on a clinic.
Take the opening scene, putting us bedside with Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis in a hotel room enjoying some pillow talk. Enjoying it until they're upright once more, anyway, ardor tamped out by the uncertainties of present and future--namely, Sam's struggles repaying his non-metaphorical debts. Bloch reveals Mary's anxieties about her relationship without much dialogue. Just good old-fashioned backstory narrative, a "getting to know this poor lass who's about to lose her head a couple of times." A movie can't do that, not unless it really wants to, and even then the earnestness virtually guarantees failure.
Despite changes in age and physique, Norman Bates remains a twisted, jittery mama's boy with an unnerving eagerness to please. I'll talk more about this in the next section.
The other major alteration is one of the more drastic of any book-to-movie: the shower scene. Infamous like Mobb Deep, legendary like D.I.T.C. and not easy like pimpin' per the Big Daddy Kane (a whole week of shooting!), everyone knows the shower scene in Psycho. Well, it's there in the book too, except rather than multiple stab wounds to the abdomen, Mary Crane is decapitated. Hitchcock loved him some decapitation (witness the use of strangulation across his films, a "metaphorical" head removal) but when presented with the perfect opportunity to show a "real" one…next section!
Paramount Studios wanted nothing to do with Hitchcock's follow-up to North By Northwest. A cheap psychological thriller from the man who made Rear Window? Hitchcock so believed in Psycho he told the bigwigs that he'd keep the budget under a million dollars by shooting in black-and-white with the crew of his hit Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, on Universal Studio sound stages since Paramount was so goddamn offended by the possibility of such trash in their vicinity.
Resist the urge to romanticize the past, especially that of an industry with a nasty tendency to romanticize the past. Major motion picture studios have never known their asshole from their uvula. When a master of cinema, the motherfucking God of framing shots, went to the heads of Paramount and announced the plans for his next film, those burlap-brained office-occupiers should have handed over blank checks with the least artificial smiles they could muster up.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Bloch's novel took superficial inspiration from the notorious case of Ed Gein. Hitchcock's film took the novel and squeezed, a python coiled around bound paper.
The differences are thus minimal, and vital. Firstly, obviously, is the portrayal of Norman Bates. Hitchcock found the ultimate mama's boy too unlikable on the page, too lacking in vulnerability. Audiences needed to feel something for Bates besides revulsion, and this would mean making him a less-obvious moonbug of a man. Thus, the casting of young, thin, downright handsome Anthony Perkins.
Reading Psycho allowed me to try a fun little challenge--give the story shades of color beyond the black, white and gray that Hitchcock provided. Seeing the silver gleam of a knife blade, the dark, clotted blood on the all-white shower, no problem. The floral wallpaper turned out especially bothersome in my imagination, and thank you Psycho for introducing me to the color "turkey-red."
Re-envisioning Norman Bates as a pudgy virgin actually presented little problem. I can especially see those pink, wet, bulging cheeks, those close-set eyes. I kinda dig Book Norman, sicko supreme. He coats his throat with firewater and wets his beak with fringe non-fiction.
Hitchcock would love my failure to see anyone but Janet Leigh as Marion. He realized instinctively that his tasteless little horror film would work smarter with an added emphasis on the doomed pretty blonde. So he switched the narrative focus in the beginning from Norman to Marion (we don't even get our first glimpse of him until close to a half-hour in), subtly switching it back to Norman as his descent into homicidal mania accelerates. But the man-boy is no untouchable victim. Sure, Norman provokes a measure of sympathy. Yes, Marion's sins--theft, impatience--deserve judgment. But not so harsh, and not meted out by him.
Sam explaining Norman's illness came across more natural. But Hitch wanted us to hear it from an expert directly. The psychiatrist speaks at length and in depth. The unsophisticated audiences common of the era needed to be explicitly told, and that's fine. But oh God it drags the movie down so much. Yet, the Mama Bates monologue immediately following works better on screen! Try and watch that without chills blasting your back like shotgun pellets!
From page one, Bloch puts us in the morass of the murderous mind, and the dread sensation never relents until the conclusion. Fear is something the film builds up to, in titillating increments, until the dull thud of Lila's heart as she searches the unnaturally immaculate Bates residence is virtually audible.
Writer Joseph Stefano avers that Alfred Hitchcock chose Psycho for adaptation thanks to "the murder in the shower." How differently would history judge Psycho had Hitchcock not changed that scene? Could he have artfully depicted the separation of head from body? Should the contents of Norman's books been made more obvious in the film? Should Lila's reaction have been as strong as it was in the novel?
No. To possibly all of that. Hitchcock intended to engage the audience without alienating them. He wanted moviegoers to exit the theater feeling a bit dirtier than when they entered, to feel like rushing home and drawing a restorative bath--not a shower.
So who does it better?
Both book and movie forced a low, slow breath from me at their respective conclusions. Both author and director enchanted me with their appreciation for the mischief of light and shadow, the elasticity of the human mind and the tricks it plays on the body below.
(What lurks underneath? Memories. The best and the worst of us stems from what we remember, how much we remember, and when we remember.)
Hitchcock went further by a few steps, sexualizing the act of murder, the reality of death itself--arms extended, hands grasping, legs weakening, eyelids drooping, release and collapse. He was possibly the only director of his time who could have taken Robert Bloch's novel and made it better. And that is exactly what he did.
MIND THE GAP
Mary, Marion, meh.
The novel starts with a character reading a book, which is such a writer thing to do.
The reveal of Mrs. Bates' existence status, somehow, hits harder in the book. I could not explain why, precisely. Just does.
Jaws is basically Spielberg's Psycho. Based on an undemanding novel (although be clear, Robert Bloch is a far more skilled author than Peter Benchley), changed an entire population's opinion of something rather innocent, did beaucoup box office, and is studied by cinephiles to this day.
$40,000 in 1959--$320,000 in 2017.
Speaking of money…Bloch's publishing contract neglected to include a bonus or percentage of profits in the event that the movie rights were sold. Of the $9,500 Hitchcock spent to acquire those rights, Bloch only saw $5K.
Casaba melons bleed Bosco!
Coffee and cold cuts? Christ a'mighty.
Do yourself a favor, and don't read up on Anthony Perkins's own mother issues.
Anybody with a copy--physical, digital--of the 2/11/1963 episode of I've Got a Secret needs to get at me.
Perhaps Hitchcock felt there wasn't room enough for two fat weirdoes on the set.
Because it's the most pointless film ever made. That's why I didn't review it.