Thursday, April 6, 2017

Better In Your Head?--POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE

1987
Carrie Fisher


"You'd be happier if you ate, don't you think?"

SPOILER ALERT, love is not in and of itself "true" or "false." Only the people involved are.

The actress is thirty-one years old, which in Hollywood means forty-seven. Among her roles: a nymphet, a space princess, a "mystery woman," an adulterous flutist and a procurer of Munchkins.

The actress has spent over a decade doing what actors do. They live to play; they play to live. They fake it to hopefully make it, which in another line of work might get you disgraced but in their realm can grant immortality. Now add that pressure to some junk that was already set in place way before they hit mark one, spoke line two, or divorced spouse three, and the resulting sum shouldn't come as a shock.

"Drugs made me feel more normal," Carrie Fisher told Psychology Today in 2001, sixteen years after her gargantuan Percodan habit led to an overdose, which led to a month in detox, which led to the actress deciding to lift a pen to begin (and end) her very first novel.*

"Write what you know," goes the classic advice. That also includes what you did, said and heard.

The dissection begins with an actress named Suzanne Vale getting her stomach pumped after an accidental indulgence of Percs. After an absurd (but effective) stint in rehab, Suzanne is free to pretend for a living once more. A role in a buddy cop film puts her in a Catch-22 situation that she extricates herself from accidentally. The final sections of the novel concentrate on Suzanne Vale off of the set: meetings, parties, dates. True love? Shit, maybe.

Cautious optimism: how every celebrity's semi-autobiographical debut novel should conclude.

Wow, not lots of story. Numerous inciting incidents without any rising action. Climax? Hey, this isn't that kind of book! Nor is it a conventionally structured book. The decision to break up Suzanne's story with those of peripheral figures indicates either indecisiveness or stubbornness. The five sections go from epistolary, to first person journals, to third person narrative. These transitions are slightly jarring, but hey, any novel that can leave me feeling like putting it down for a few seconds while I press the "RECAL" button is a unique beast.

Why bother with Postcards From the Edge? Because, I'm not talking summer '86 on the UMD campus when I say there's killer lines everywhere. You saw the author credit, correct? Carrie Fi-goddamn-sher. She digs into the dirt and strikes amethyst. Exactly where else do you have to be, anyway? Unless you have an actual aversion to reading a bracing work of fiction full of candor and heart** written by a mere actress, especially one who made her name in a sci-fi movie.

Man, if that ain't some sour lemon-lime nincompoopery. Refusing to read anything written by someone who may or may not have been the sex slave of a corpulent crime lord is gonna limit your options, I hope you realize.

Okay, lemme tell ya why bother. Postcards From the Edge shouldn't work. What Suzanne calls "cancer of the perspective," others will call "first-world problems." Is emotional pain and suffering relative? Does it even qualify as actual agony when it's experienced by the affluent and celebrated? The complaints of the spoiled rotten tend to emit the most fetid stink, but Fisher realized the validity of her own conflicts, and refused to downplay them simply because she grew up as faux-royalty or because she represented the first crush of nerds and geeks by the millions.

Fisher's prose is unafraid to capture and recapture the flinches that half of all people don't even realize they're making. The story she tells is plotless but not at all pointless. Even when it appears she's gone tangential, she hasn't. It ends not happily, exactly, but hopefully. And if you ain't gonna be happy, you can at least be hopeful. It's that depth of understanding, that eccentric affection, that brazen refusal to preach, that makes Postcards From the Edge imminently readable nearly thirty years later.




1990
Director-Mike Nichols
Writer-Carrie Fisher


"I don't get your generation's humor."
"I don't have a generation."

No surprise that Hollywood scrambled to adapt Carrie Fisher's debut novel. A comedic maestro behind the camera and luminous names in front of it, similarly expected. But would the team of Nichols and Fisher reconfigure the parts to create a whole that was coherent, entertaining and true to the spirit of its source? Could the film avoid being suffocated by its own pedigree?

Well, sure. Suzanne Vale is still an actress, still an addict, still cracking jokes on the gurney while her stomach's being pumped. But forget the motley crew in rehab, they're basically shunted to the side. Forget her friend, Lucy. Forget the live-in boyfriend. Especially forget that, once you put the novel down, you could barely remember her mother. Because if the novel is a tale of one woman's journey to totally fucked up to somewhat fucked up, the movie is a mother-daughter "dramedy" (to borrow the hot portmanteau of the time).

With hair the color of Pimento cheese, and hands dirtied by whichever snack food is satisfying her craving of the moment, Suzanne (Meryl Streep) is a disheveled debacle. The crew on her latest movie cracks up when she Freudian slips on a line of dialogue (metaphors! High five!) but the carousel ride is about to screech to a stop. The director (Gene Hackman) berates Suzanne--and, bonus, her dealer--in the hopes it will straighten her path.

Stunningly, words are insufficient.

Fresh outta therapy, Suzanne soon lands a gig. A studio is willing to take a chance--so long as she stays with someone "responsible" for the duration of shooting. That someone is her mother Doris, a maven of melodrama whose prime as an actress/singer/dancer is long past. The older lady copes with her losses by speaking loudly, acting selfishly, drinking generously and manipulating situations with the elan of a perpetual performer. Her daughter both adores and abhors the woman who raised her, but Suzanne can't cast stones too forcefully, lest one bounce off her mater's titanium facade and leave a nasty knot on her own head.

The movie set is not quite the magical site of redemption; overhearing a catty convo concerning hr shrinking status and expanding body leaves Suzanne vulnerable when up pops Jack (Dennis Quaid), the film producer in whose bed she overdosed. He's a smooth-talking son of an overachieving woman. Before long, he's sold Suzanne on the idea that he's madly in love with her. Then she finds out he's actually been boinking one of her co-stars. A huge argument ensues at his crib (Suzanne having raced there from the set, not bothering to change out of her cop costume) and shots are fired, in a manner of shooting. As if being hornswaggled at the world's oldest game sets off wasn't enough, Suzanne finds out that her manager has scampered off with her money. At last, the overdue blow-up between parent and child! Things deteriorate rapidly, with each woman defending themselves against accusations of ingratitude.

Suzanne runs off to a "looping" session for the movie she was filming when she OD'ed. The director promises he will always have work for her...so long as she remains sober.

With good news comes less-good--Doris, under the inimical influence of wine and vodka, crashed her car into a tree. Nothing grievous, just a bump on the head and a bloodied wig. Mother and daughter are able to have their conciliatory moment with the help of Asshole Grandma, who showed up at the hospital apparently just to remind everyone--including the audience--that no matter the two main characters' flaws, at least they ain't as big a barrel o' bitch as her.

Any number of actresses could have portrayed the lead role; none of them could have done a better job than Meryl Streep. (This is pretty much par for the course re: her film career.) In a land where everyone hides their eyes, she embraced Suzanne's susceptibility and made what could have been a maddening exemplar of "affluenza" into a gutsy, soulful woman taking pains to reshape her life. Shirley MacLaine is pretty much a Debbie Reynolds hologram, complete with wig, mink coat, fake eyebrows and pearls by the pound.

There, then, is what makes Postcards From the Edge both satisfying and disappointing. It's a showcase for two legendary actresses and not much else. Given the men and women at work, a classic comedy was virtually guaranteed. Yet...something's missing.

The central conflict of the novel--Suzanne Vale vs. Self--was heightened by the presence of the peers, friends and relatives. Every interaction feeds into the struggle. The movie places Suzanne and her mother in their own sphere, untouched by outside influence until near the end. Wonderful craftsmanship that fails to resonate.

BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Suzanne Vale is but one of several characters in Postcards From the Edge who operate under the assumption that figuring out people inside one's own headspace is more satisfying than engaging them directly. This review series relates.

The best part about Carrie Fisher adapting her own work is that for every brilliant line discarded, a new one takes its place. But just as the Queen giveth, the Queen taketh away. Putting the focus on the mother-daughter relationship means that Suzanne's time climbing the steps is drastically diminished, depriving us of Carl the garrulous black guy and Alex the TV writer determined to "master" his cocaine use.

Hers is a story mixes humorous observations with harrowing situations, unorthodox insights darting out from the pages like spooked cockroaches. The film could not have withstood the challenge of bringing Alex's frazzled brain to the screen. I found him ultimately detestable, but goddamned if he's not at the hyper center of my favorite part of anything titled Postcards From the Edge. Best, I was sitting on the toilet when I read it for the first time, bath water running. It absolutely should have been written into the movie, but I doubt it could have.

Pure imagination, the power of.

Still, I maintain the movie could have benefited from additional paranoia.

The appearance of Jack scared me at first; the proclamations of amore, the entreaty to "take a risk," all of it troubled by inner Scooby Doo. Luckily, Jack proved to be every inch the man-whore on the screen as he was on the page!

The book features Mama Vale sparingly, and she does not communicate with Suzanne in any meaningful way. Indeed, the only wisdom from an elder comes courtesy of her grandmother, whom the film reduced to a splenetic old broad who dispenses blame like a turkey-necked Pez. Given the opportunity, Carrie Fisher decided to write a love letter/ransom note to her own relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. This is where book and film diverge most profoundly.

The dynamic is established at a welcome-home party invented entirely for the book (replacing a standard "let's There's old friends, new cake, and even a pianist to provide a soundtrack for this latest survival story. At some point, Doris beseeches Suzanne to take the microphone and bless everyones ears with a song. After some hemming and hawing, she belts out a sweetly competent version of Ray Charles's "You Don't Know Me" to raucous applause. Immediately afterward, her mother takes over to remind everyone "I'm Still Here." Suzanne can't help but smile; her mother can't let past glories remain in their rightful place, but when the present is so fraught with hysterics and discomposure, reprieve in any form is welcome.

Of course, resentments allowed to stew will have their day in the bowl.

The movie will definitely appeal to those with an intolerance for the penchant of addicts to tend to their every thought like a nursery plant. The book is for anyone who wants to experience the breathtaking power of words. Up to you.

MIND THE GAP
I decided to do the "Better In Your Head?" series during the summer of 2014. Within several days, I'd compiled a list of seventy-two books. A year later, I revisited the idea and trimmed the list by a dozen. At the end of 2015, I vowed to finally get started, after cutting away a final handful of novels. Postcards From the Edge just avoided the chopping block. The reason why it was even in such a precarious position is one I can't recall. I wish I could forget the last week of 2016 so easily.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher, for writing Postcards From the Edge and introducing me to the existence of "chunky" cocaine. And for being, in general, a litmus test for humanity.

"It erodes my real sense of who I am." Lucy, shut up.

Strengthening the argument for the Vales as the Fishers is this passage from the book:
        "I told her I was miserable here, and she said, 'Well, you were happy as a child. I can prove it. I have films.'"
        Then, thirty years later, this exchange at the beginning of the HBO documentary Bright Lights:
        "You have films that I'm happy."
        "Oh yes, well, because you doubted it for so long."

Band name alert: Bad Hetero.

Autobiography title alert: I'll Fix the Eating.

Mike Nichols picked up the film rights for $100K. Not quite the steal Psycho was, but still a bargain.

Suzanne describes Alex as "good-looking, in a Heathcliff sort of way," which put me off that character for good since I've been living the "Screw Wuthering Heights" life since my own hospitalization.

If drug use affected only the user, few people would care about punishment. Arrests would be deemed pointless, rehab a sham. That's the purpose of "getting clean"--other people are sick and tired of being harmed by someone else's coping mechanism. Less "save your life" and more "stop being burdensome."

How incredible was Carrie Fisher? Meryl Streep played her in a movie. The mic disintegrates from a drop of that magnitude.





*She would turn out three more, all worth your time and energy.
**If you ever saw one of her stage shows, you'll have zero difficulty hearing her voice as you read.

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