Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Better In Your Head?--WISE BLOOD

Flannery O'Connor

"You don't have to believe nothing you don't understand and approve of. If you don't understand it, it ain't true and that's all there is to it."

SPOILER ALERT, greatest novel ever written.

Hazel Moats is a forcefully spiteful child of God who seeks to squat and drop in every room of his Dad's house. Time on the battlefield turned him atheist, which probably wouldn't have surprised his traveling preacher grandfather. Hazel can't ask the man, though, or any other family member for that matter. Each and every one has gone on, below and beyond, sending Hazel into a spiral of desire and dislocation. He boards a train to some other godforsaken open air tomb in Tennessee, eventually winding up at an address he spotted on a bathroom stall.

Everywhere Hazel wanders he's mistaken for a preacher, what with his twelve-dollar suit and sharp black hat, not to mention the invisible heritage. A harsh encounter with a blind, scarred preacher name of Asa Hawks (and his young companion, Sabbath Lily) inspires Moats to create "The Church of Christ Without Christ," a sort of "empirical truth strikes back" that denies sin and redemption, and thus, Christ. A church "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way" proves a hard sell; people have since time immemorial sought what is established and reassuring, taught from young to equate curiosity with death.

Possibly the only person Hazel's sermonizing has a genuine effect on is eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, a toiler at the local zoo who escaped an abusive home only to find a town full of grumpy and distant folk wary of making connections. Their loss; Enoch boasts "wise blood," the innate, worldly knowledge on how to live, no spiritual endeavor required.

Hazel shows up at the zoo, curious to learn where the blind preacher resides, which further convinces Enoch that something huge is about to go down. He leads Hazel to a museum, wherein underneath some glass lies a shrunken mummy. Far from riveted, Hazel takes it upon himself to locate the preacher and his companion, at a place that just happens to have a vacancy.

Eager to prove himself an extraordinary blasphemer, Hazel takes to the town square, standing on the hood of his car, shouting at righteous Christians who will say and do whatever necessary to prove the breadth of their righteousness. A con man's attempt to butter Hazel's biscuit goes left, and soon he faces competition in the form of another preacher in a dark suit and hat shouting unconventional antireligious thought from the hood of a car. Asa Hawks turns out a deceitful SOB, too, and he skips town, leaving behind Sabbath. She convinces Hazel that a man could do worse things than put a banana in her fruit salad, but theirs is a doomed union.

When Enoch heard Hazel announce the need for "a new jesus" in order to advance the COCWC to further glory, his vital tubing began pulsing with incomprehensible purpose. He--and only he, Enoch Emery--can and will deliver unto the Church what it demands. He shows up at Hazel's door with the bundled "new jesus," which Sabbath takes to the bathroom for further inspection. It's the shrunken mummy from the museum. Since she's a three-fourths fuck-up like everyone else in the novel, Sabbath finds its shriveled face "right cute" and decides it would be funny to show Hazel their new "baby." The sight through his mother's prescription glasses--of an unholy Madonna and child--disgusts the ailing man, and he destroys the faux-child.

Enoch follows up his monumental act of bravery by exacting revenge on a guy in a gorilla suit that told him to go to hell. Hazel follows up his stupendous act of violence against slapdash religious imagery by hunting down the fraudulent street preacher, a father of six named Solace Layfield, and running him over.

God'll get his, though; when an asshole cop makes Hazel drive his junker to the top of an embankment, get out, and watch as he pushes it over, that's the hand of the Lord right there.

The grandson of a preacher man, the boy without a family, the fanatical truth seeker, the leader with no followers, begins the long walk back home. He will succeed where Asa Hawks failed. With a bucket of water and quicklime, Hazel Moats blinds himself.

Soon it is only he and the landlady, Mrs. Flood, living at the house. She can't grasp why anyone would blind themselves. She herself would just end her life rather than intentionally worsen it. He's hiding something, but what? Why? If she can't solve any of the mysteries, she can at least marry Hazel, collect his government checks and commit his crazy ass. But then, since she's three-fourths a fuck-up like everyone else in the novel, she develops deeper feelings.

The love of another human being means as much to Hazel as a grappling hook to a seal. He is no longer in denial about his sinful nature, and is embracing the spiritually restorative properties of self-harm. He wants nothing more or less than to be left alone to continue on his path.
Mrs. Flood is unable to let him alone. She offers Hazel her friendship. He walks off. What kind of a man, she wonders. The cops bring Hazel back after two days, unaware that he has died during the drive from the drainage ditch where they found him.

The book's concluding paragraphs must be read to be believed.

Though arguably more celebrated for her short stories, Flannery O'Connor also wrote two novels in her thirty-nine years: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Both recount the quirky, unsettling experiences of spiritual misfits who obsess over earthly suffering and the promise of redemption. No one from any part of the world, in any era, has ever written more brilliantly on the topic of religion. O'Connor wrote so boldly, so honesty, she could make absolutist assholery seem a lovely trait. Reading her work is the moment of biting into what you think is a plain donut only to discover that it is, in fact, filled with jelly. 

Director-John Huston
Writer-Benedict Fitzgerald & Michael Fitzgerald

"You think he's dead?"

"Ask him."

Oh Jesus, hon.

A quarter of a century after Wise Blood left readers dazed, aspiring screenwriters Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald decided it was time to bring the iconoclastic tale of crackers gone crackers to the big screen. Who else but them? True, neither man had a credit to his name, but their father Robert held the title of literary executor for Flannery O'Connor's estate. Legendary director John Huston (no stranger to adapting beloved novels) agreed to helm the film if the Fitzgerald brothers could raise the budget. They did, so he did.

If you've read the book, you know the movie. Huston and the Fitzgeralds had no desire to reinvent he cheese wheel. Hazel Moates (Brad Dourif) is a 22-year-old Tennessean fresh from serving his country hitches a ride to his family's home, only to find it's been abandoned. He takes a train to another ugly little town to start the next phase of his life. "I'm gonna do something I ain't done before," he tells anyone who'll listen. (Like blink?) A meeting with a sightless street preacher named Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), and his much younger female friend Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) sets Hazel on the path to hubris and heresy. A local teen named Enoch Emery (Dan Shor) is instantly taken by the lanky man with the black hat and grey suit who walks like a scared rooster.

Hazel has little time to waste. He finds a temporary home with Leora Watts, a butterball of a whore (who probably blew golden infinity bubbles) and buys a junky ride. Followed by a patina of religiosity, Moats begins preaching the word of "The Church of Christ Without Christ." He moves into the same building as Asa Hawks and Sabbath Lily. A hell of a thing; a huckster calling himself Onnie Jay Holy (Ned Beatty) pops up and offers to help Hazel with "the religion business." He can work the crowd like a cowboy Dwayne Johnson and earn some scratch to boot. Hazel responds with his standard boorishness, and is then somehow taken aback when OJH makes good on his vow of revenge by interrupting one of Hazel's street sermons with a bootleg version of Moats himself.

Enoch is off getting humiliated by a fat guy dressed up in an ape costume--all he wanted was a Pepsi! Of the heart! His vow to provide Hazel's church with a suitable Christ figure goes much better, at least until said figure winds up smashed against a wall and hurled out onto the street.

A man with no family or friends is 98% more likely to run over a doppelganger with his car. LOOK IT UP.

The odds of the same man burning the sight out of his eyes are not available, thanks to insufficient data.

Hazel's landlady, Mrs. Flood, is a bit thrown by having a blind, cattle-hearted tenant who walks on rocks. She lays down the law: marry her and start acting like a halfway social beast, or skedaddle. So he skedaddles into the pouring rain, and after two days the cops find him lying in a ditch, alive and unwilling to move. By the time they deposit him at Mrs. Flood's doorstep, he's already home.

There's one reason to watch Wise Blood, and that's Brad Dourif. His clear-faced, fierce-eyed turn as Hazel Moats is just marvelous. It's worth enduring Dan Shor's gratingly dopey Enoch and a soundtrack better suited for The Apple Dumpling Gang.

What we have here is a bit more than simply comparing book to movie; it's also comparing the devout Catholic who felt a blatant admiration for fundamentalist Protestants to the avowed atheist who wore no size love for Southerners.

As if that weren't enough, it's also comparing two titans in their respective arenas. With only two novels and thirty-two short stories to her credit, Flannery O'Connor is arguably the pound-for-pound, word-for-word greatest writer to ever work with the English language. John Huston's resume--director of thirty-seven films, writer or co-writer on twenty-seven films, and dozens of acting credits--combined with his reputation as the cerebral Hemingway of cinema qualifies him as one of the truly massive talents to ever work in the motional arts.

And maybe if Huston had written the screenplay for Wise Blood, the movie wouldn't have missed the target tonally.

A tremendous part of what makes O'Connor's work so extraordinary to this day is her grasp of the bizarrely comic. While the Fitzgerald bros seemed to understand that fine enough, they lacked the author's grave respect for the restorative power of sin. Walking away from Wise Blood--or much of her text--with one's distaste of religion more pungent than ever is not uncommon. Such a reaction is distinctly at odds, however, with what O'Connor herself believed: human beings are fallen, yet redeemable through God's grace. We may not deserve God's grace; in fact, you can take it to the notary public that we don't, given how frequently we submit to our most aggressive impulses, how rapidly we weaken under the influence of blandishments. Yet, grace is what we receive. Great tragedy--and comedy--lies in the ways grace visits the people in O'Connor's stories: sudden, bizarre, violent. She sought to shock by reminding readers that salvation must always be preceded by punishment.

Heady shit. So I'm not going to condemn Huston's film for falling short. But I'm not going to deny the ways in which it does.

First, the prioritizing of setting over character. Wise Blood was shot on location in Macon, GA, meaning it pretty much nailed the post-nuclear landscape hinted at in the text. Not that the characters are underdeveloped, just diluted.

Hazel Moats is a moissanite rod decorated with porcupine quills, a generally inept socializer who slightly atones by also being a snappy dresser, a young man with an old soul, who lurches around from one spot to the next. The reader sees him first on a train, weirding out a woman. The viewer sees him first in the uniform of a soldier. We assume he did the USA proud. We see him walk through the remains of his past. We assume he is heartbroken. Our own hearts go out to him, or at least, that's the aim. Having lost everything, his retreat into brazen self-denial makes sense.

Hazel in the novel is a piranha, whereas Brad Dourif plays him as more kin to a stingray with tail envy. I found his performance difficult to tear my eyes from; the very act of speaking seemed to stretch the bones underneath his skin.

Enoch is watered-down like "last call" beer, thanks to the omission of any scene from the book that revealed him as a peerless waitress-repulser. Huston wants us to see "ee bummings" as an endearingly child-like freak, instead of a creepy, insecure murderer. And what's with not including the scene where Enoch sticks his head into a cabinet? Just remembering it makes me snuckle. (That's snort-chuckle.) Or the colorblindness test described when Enoch stops by a soda fountain?

I recommend the film. It is, likely, the best result any fan of the book could ask for. Even though the playfulness lacks, the energy crackles, and Brad Dourif gives one of those perpetually overlooked performances.

Who's Hazel Moats anyway, thinking he can evade Christ? He'd sooner sidestep carbon dioxide. Christianity is an integral part of American society, a pervasive influence on everyday life, so that even someone who views the story of God as pure populace-placating myth cannot ever truly live free from it. I'm not saying religion is to blame for mental illness; I'm saying that religion is to blame for the grossly inadequate care available to the mentally ill.

Of all the killer lines in the book, this one resonates with me most lugubriously: "Where you are is no good unless you can get away from it."

Mrs. Flood is a wonderful example of so many Christians, now as then: parochial, avaricious, and unquestionably kind.

Still, how hard is it to respect a fellow human's wish? Hazel Moats simply wants to suffer for his salvation, and he's understandably resentful of intrusions and prejudgments from Mrs. Flood (who seems to believe that having access to his thoughts and feelings is her birthright).

Wise Blood was written and set in the 1950s South. Hence, the "n-word" is used repeatedly. If you are a reader unwilling and/or possibly unable to make concessions for context, avoid Wise Blood.

If you could become an angle, what angle would you become? Obtuse, for me. Being greater than while being also simultaneously lesser than is pretty much the story of me.

Odd-ass stories centering around religion are just part and parcel of hailing from the American South. Ask me about the cow and my brother's baby toe next time you see me (but not the first time you see me).

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE NEW CENTURIONS

Joseph Wambaugh


"...they know things, basic things about strength and weakness, courage and fear, good and evil, especially good and evil."

Jeezcram but do I love Joseph Wambaugh. Ten years on the Los Angeles Police Department and he decides America's bookshelves are overdue for an authentic depiction of pavement-pounding cop life. He was absolutely correct, and in 1971 the first of his (so far) sixteen novels appeared. In what would become a trend, the book shot up the New York Times Bestseller List and garnered a plethora of praise from literary critics of varying size and influence. Beyond the miseries and delights of maintaining the peace, Wambaugh exposed the banalities of law and order, bestowing a misunderstood profession with a brutish dignity foreign to readers of the era. His first three novels are absolutely essential in any crime fiction lovers library (especially The Choirboys, which kicked off this review series).

The New Centurions follows three cops from their time at the police academy in the summer of 1960 to their participation in the Watts Riots of 1965.

Sergio Duran is a fair-featured Chicano who downplays his ethnicity. This tactic plays out as well as the first time I ever tried cooking on a gas stove.

Roy Fehler is a vain college boy whose "hobby" is the object of scorn and ridicule from those closest to him. Compared to his fellow brothers in blue, Roy fancies himself intellectual and open-minded, sensitive to the plight of the Negro and just better than his big-bellied, epithet-spewing partner.

Last and (in his mind) least is Gus Plebesly, a slightly-built 22-year-old with a wife and three kids. He doubts his ability to excel on the street before he even sets foot one onto it, but he lucks out when he's assigned to share a patrol car with 20-year vet Andy Kilvinsky. A "radio car philosopher" with flawless instincts, he warns Gus of change on the horizon, a societal shift that will present an unprecedented challenge to the keepers of the relative peace.

Readers get to know these men on and off their beats. Serge coasts until he falls in love with a young Mexican waitress (their moments together are alternately tender and cornball; Wambaugh never has written romance very effectively). Roy gets a divorce, a shotgun blast to the stomach, and a drinking problem that earns him a suspension. Then he too falls in love, with a black woman named Laura.

Then there's Gus. Oh Gus. He spent all that time worried about making a good cop when he should have worried about making a good husband, father, and chooser of role models. Andy Kilvinsky out of uniform is a lost, lonely man. He knew how to be one thing and one thing only. His post-retirement fate is less sad for being so shamefully predictable.

The three men find themselves together in the same patrol car after the Watts Riots, catching up and making plans to reconnect. Each of them are basically happy with the men they've become, and there's nothing like surviving flying bricks, bombs and bullets.

But if you expect a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention.

The New Centurions is plotless and timeless. The story is three stories, each stressing the importance of the little things: sufficient suspect descriptions, proper handing of evidence, etc. Gunfights and high-speed chases are more rare in the average cop's career than Hollywood leads us to believe, which is what made Wambaugh's stuff so refreshing.

Being a debut novel, there is a barrage of digression, but a bit of the old superfluous reminiscence never hurt anyone. Faint genius is evident throughout, and things would only get better

Director-Richard Fleischer
Writer-Sterling Silliphant

"Laws change, people don't."

Hollywood didn't wait to bring Wambaugh's cops to the big screen, resulting in a loosely based adaptation that...wait...loosely based…loosely based….Lucy Bates? I really hafta watch some Season 3 Hill Street Blues after this review's finished.

Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach), Gus Plebesly (Scott Wilson) and Serge Duran (Erik Estrada) are still here, but whereas each man was given essentially equal time to shine within the covers, the frames didn't play fair. The movie version of The New Centurions is basically the Roy Story. It's he fortunate enough to learn at the hip of 23-year vet Andy Kilvinski (George C. Scott, whose performance justifies the entire production), while Gus is saddled with affable fat-ass Whitey (Clifton James, in a rare non-Sheriff role).

Roy is also the only character given a life outside of the job, specifically a wife (played by a popsicle-smuggling Jane Alexander) who resents his decision to drop out of law school and pursue a policing career. She's pushed over the edge when he refuses to quit the force even after stopping a bullet with his solar plexus.

Gus accidentally shoots and kills a robbery victim (done so much better on Hill Street Blues, incidentally), a harrowing event which is never referred to afterwards.

Serge is angry at being transferred to East L.A. And that's pretty much the extent of what he does.

Anyway, back to Roy! He's so handsome and clever. And he actually undergoes character development, or at least I think that's what the mustache signifies. When Andy Kilvinski takes a break from retirement to visit the old stomping grounds, he regales his old partner not with stories of children and grandchildren, or time spent on a fishing boat with a name that gives away the owner's former profession, choosing rather to pontificate on the country's inevasible hurtle towards anarchy. Vices will one by one become, well, not virtues, but simply no longer vices. Society will grow more and more lenient. Excuses and explanations will become preferable to punishments and penalties. The cop--the new centurion--is under siege. He can do little but what he's been trained to do, even as he frets for the future.

The retired cop? Eats his gun.

Roy responds to life's vagaries by sneaking booze breaks on the beat, which nearly costs him life when he picks the wrong prostitute to roust. The resulting suspension gives him ample time to pursue a relationship with a sweet, pretty black woman named Lorrie. Lorrie provides common sense and uncommon compassion, and gradually, Roy begins to pick up the pieces.

With eleven minutes of movie left, the call finally comes in: a "major 415," which is CA cop code for a riot. I blame the 90s for failing to feel impressed.

Well, you know the old trope. Survive a riot, die on the steps of some tacky apartment complex. Congrats Roy, all that character development for nuthin'.

So what we have here is a TV movie with a feature film budget. A solid slate of performances and a moderately funky Quincy Jones soundtrack doesn't cover for the insipidity of the script. This is a facile, haphazard misunderstanding of a great novel and things would only get worse.

Well, let's see…one is a a vivid series of glimpses into a world either much-maligned or exaggeratedly venerated and the other one is oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Having two Oscar winners at the reins only compounds the disappointment I feel. Blowing the ending--a conclusion which left both Roy and myself in the same position, prone from a blast to the midsection, gaping in disbelief--was just the blood clot on top.

I understand the need to focus on just the one character, and who better than the only tragic figure of the three. From bookish, arrogant pest to bitter, arrogant alcoholic, he loses nearly everything before getting a second chance, only to die after making peace with his demons.

This creative decision relegates Serge and Gus, who become moons of Planet Fehler, so forget about seeing Gus's vaunted athleticism or Serge's illuminating inner conflicts (Erik Estrada will never ever be mistaken for a white guy, and he speaks fluent Spanish). The script not only transfers Gus's partner to Roy, but also the near-deadly joyride on a hooker's vehicle.

Fleischer and Silliphant were more concerned with events than people, prioritizing action over emotion. Scott Wilson (who I loved in In Cold Blood) blows the aftermath of his character's big moment by underplaying every second. He's a rookie, he's in shock, okay, but he doesn't say anything. I don't know how I'd react were I too shoot anyone, much less an innocent person, but the odds are strong that I would fucking say something. But not Gus Plebesly. Not a peep in his own defense, no words of comfort for the man's distraught son, just staring, until finally Gus hyperventilates a safe distance from the scene.

Andy Kilvinksy states, "Police work is seventy percent common sense." Which explains quite a bit. Indeed, when you remember the adage, "Common sense is not so common, " it's impossible to react to police misbehaviors with anything resembling surprise. Police brutality is many things, in many scenarios: reprehensible, commendable, unfortunate, inevitable. Rarely is it unfathomable. Cops rarely come across the best of us, or us at our best. It's part of the job description. (Lest you think me an apologist, I readily admit that many police officers themselves are not among the best of us, and this is both more troublesome and socially injurious.)

"Niggers are driving me crazy. Sometimes I think I'll kill one someday when he does what that bastard in the tow truck did." Yeah, that quote didn't make the movie. But a remake of The New Centurions would be incomplete without it.

The frequent thought that I'd rather be watching Hill Street Blues was not shooed away by the brief appearance of James B. Sikking as a vice squad supervisor. He was even smoking a pipe!

George C. Scott is one of the few genuinely great actors to appear in a Wambaugh adaptation. (If The Blue Knight had been saved from TV hell and given its day in theaters, he would have made an excellent Bumper Morgan.) Hearing him tell a hooker, "Baby, I gots more soul than I can control," is everything right with the world.

"Scotch and milk is the best muthafuckin' drink in the world." I'd sooner sip Schlitz and vinegar.

It's pretty awesome when Roy shows up to Vice, the department where cops dress like "the public." Meaning, red leather jackets, wide-collared shirts, and hair mama hair.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Better In Your Head?--ENDLESS LOVE

Scott Spencer

SPOILER ALERT, it ends and arguably is not love.

"We know almost nothing. The only way we stand it is not to care. I care and I can't stand it."

1967, Chicago. Summertime and the living is unendurable for 17-year-old David Axelrod. The parents of his 15-year-old girlfriend, Jade Butterfield, have been sufficiently freaked by their relationship to order a temporary kibosh. David responds by setting fire to the Butterfield domicile, more out of desperation than rage. Once what he's deemed to be a proper amount of time has passed, he enters the burning building, leading the family of five to safety before losing consciousness.

David survives, thanks to Hugh Butterfield, head of the now-uninhabitable house. One year in Rockville Hospital turns into three years. He sees his parents, therapists, nurses, doctors, fellow abnormals…but never Jade. (At least, never outside of his own head.)

Upon release, he returns to the care of his parents. The hoped-for solace is slow in coming. Mrs. Axelrod blames the Butterfields, whose "open house" policy made them a dubious legend locally. David loved the family; he fancied himself keenly sensitive to their dysfunction, to say nothing of the joys in plowing their daughter. His own mother and father are proving ill-equipped to help their only child tidy up his moral disarray. At least they can assure that David meets the demands of his parole: see a shrink, visit a PO, do not leave Chicago without the court's permission, and do not contact any member of the Butterfield clan.

David brings his life together, little by little: a little job, a little education, a little apartment. A little obsession that has him searching phone directories.

The thing about America: it is a big country, and even the largest cities are essentially small. He finds Ann in the phone book, under her maiden name. After a few tearful calls, she sends David a lengthy letter bringing him up to date. She and Hugh are divorced, the kids are scattered. David is not the only one struggling with leaving the past in its rightful place--Hugh Butterfield has been badgering the District Attorney about "new information" that would take the arsonist/daughter-deflowerer off the streets.

David decides to fly to New York without telling a soul. He meets up with Ann, and the pair indulge in some liquid and smoke and self-dissection, stopping just short of bumping plains. (Maybe if Ann hadn't blabbed about writing a story based on the night she spotted David and Jade banging by the fireplace?) Her compassion outweighs her shame, and she lets him stay overnight. Before departing, David copies Jade's contact information from an address book Ann made no effort to conceal.

Stirred and shaken, David walks the Manhattan streets, memories of Jade threatening to kick him over the edge, yet he continues marchin' on, until a red crosswalk light insists he take a break. Waiting with several dozen others, who should David see across the street but--Hugh Butterfield and his girlfriend Ingrid. The two men lock eyes and the younger one begins hauling ass. Dumbly, Hugh follows--right into the path of a taxi rushing to beat the yellow light.

Possibly more stupid is David's decision to hang around and gape, even (of his own volition) sharing words with a distraught Ingrid. The pair meet twice again, both times at Ann's apartment, yet if she recognizes David, she gives no outward indication. The second occasion is a brief wake of sorts, with every Butterfield child present save for Jade. Perfectly, David is exiting the apartment building when who should step out of a taxi. They embrace, but no more.

The next day, though, who should show up at David's hotel. Awkwardness, decorum, and weariness are sapped of their strength, and soon the two reunite more meaningfully. The next day they're on the bus back to Vermont, where Jade shares a house with several other young(ish) folks. Four years after burning the Butterfield place, David is once again with the love of his life, figuring out where he fits into her life, indulging in pleasures both common and not-so.

News of his father's hospitalization sends David back briefly to Chicago, a visit that ends with him attacking his mother in a fit of frustration and paranoia. He calls Jade, who informs him that Ingrid will be visiting the house in Vermont soon. The poor lady's been undergoing intensive therapy and wants very much to speak with Jade in person.

David figures the shoe will have dropped and gathered dust by the time he returns, and he's right. Another six years pass before he is once more trusted among society, a full decade since he set a stack of newspapers on fire. Jade has moved on…out of the country and off of the table. Is David reborn? Or merely rearranged?

Endless Love is a gorgeously-written tale of erotic obsession narrated by a sociopath. Surprised? Why ever would you be? "Endless love" cannot be felt by a non-lunatic. A sane person enters into an affair aware of the possibility of abbreviation. Doesn't mean they look forward to it, or expect it. They simply know it might happen. Then there's people like David Axelrod, their souls forever tethered to one person even as they give their bodies to others.  

Endless Love sold over two million copies and earned a National Book Award nomination for 1980's best work of fiction published in the paperback format (an honor which went to The Stories of John Cheever. Not too dissimilar from A Boy Named Charlie Brown losing an Oscar to Let It Be). I recommend it highly but be forewarned: it is mother-watching-you-fucking intense. Packed sick with moments of excruciating heartbreak and juddering insights. The single sex scene is long and disgustingly ferocious. Everything that occurs feels inevitable, yet the tension never wavers. I only ever put it down because I had to.

Director-Franco Zeffirelli
Writer-Judith Rascoe

"What would you do if I died?"
"I'd die too."

Scott Spencer relinquished the movie rights to his acclaimed novel in 1980. He could not possibly have imagined the fecal tsunamis to follow. The first, and "best"--I really feel like I should put quotation marks around those quotation marks--arrived just one year later.

It's young luv in suburban Chicago. David Axelrod (Martin Hewlitt) is head over heels for Jade Butterfield (Brooke Shields), the only daughter of Hugh and Ann (Don Murray, Shirley Knight). The Butterfields are beloved/detested for their bohemian style of life, while the Axelrods are well-connected Socialists who seem to like their only child okay. No wonder David would rather hang with the Butterfields. Their parties are wild, with attendees are from all crawls of life, and also, their last name is Butterfield.

Once the party disperses, David sneaks back and, with the rest of the family mostly snuggled in their beds, he and Jade bang their very first gong in front of a roaring fireplace. I say "mostly" since Jade's mother is frozen on the staircase, watching her daughter get the pork roll with no small satisfaction.

Love helps Jade feel better about her subpar tits, but it isn't doing much for her sleep cycle, which in turn affects her school grades. When she's caught swiping her pop's Z-booster pills, he goes apoplectic and forbids her from seeing that friggin' Axelrod punk…for thirty days.

He understandably doesn't handle it well, bitching to a couple buddies from school. One of them, Billy (Tom Cruise in his film debut, as well as some insane short shorts), shares a story about the time he decided to burn some newspapers in his house. The resultant blaze spooked him so much he immediately put it out. His parents misunderstood the situation and thought their boy a hero.*

Later that night, another swinging shindig at Casa de Butterfield. So much fun, so much freedom…David watches with increasing resentment. To the strains of "Heart of Glass." For two and a half crotch-rubbing minutes.

Kindly he waits till the guests have left before setting the fire.

The Axelrods pull the necessary strings to assure their boy winds up not in prison, but a psychiatric hospital. It doesn't really matter to David where he is; if Jade isn't there, he doesn't want to be there either. Only she gives value to a place, a person, a thing, indeed to the entire world.

More strings, more pulling. After two years, David is released into the custody of his parents. Suddenly, David is in Manhattan, on the doorstep of Ann Butterfield, now divorced and living alone in an overpriced apartment. The two catch up on good old times and nearly make a new awful memory. The next morning, David pilfers Jade's contact information from Ann's address book and purchases a bus ticket to Vermont that he decides to sit on.

(Is a little consistency in your impulsivity too much to ask?!)

It's hard to have an unproductive time in NYC, but David's on a pretty notable roll. When he unintentionally leads Jade's father into the path of an unusually reckless taxi driver, I'm pretty much ready to name him Mayor. (He even makes a dreadful error in judgment at the scene which will come back to bite him in the ass later.)

Jade comes to NYC to mourn with the family. She later shows up at David's hotel. Through tears, she insists that although she loves him, they aren't meant to be. Through tears, he insists that they are. David grabs her and throws her onto the bed. At first she's vehement in her resistance, but then she gives in to their shared desire. Women, amiriterwut?

The next morning, post-reunion afterglow is snuffed out by a couple of uninvited guests: Jade's brother Keith (Jimmy Spader, as he was then known, looking for all the world like WASP Andy Gibb) and Hugh's girlfriend, Ingrid. She has something to tell Jade, something she's already told Keith and will soon tell a court of law: David was present at the site of the accident that took Hugh's life. David doesn't deny her assertion, which prompts Keith to attack him while spouting lines straight out of a kung fu flick where a son is hellbent on avenging his father's murder. Soon, David is being dragged off by the cops as Jade remonstrates from a safe distance.

The action jumps ahead, but not too far ahead. We see Ann and Jade, speaking of love. Ann departs. Through the barred windows of his cell, David watches as Jade approaches.

Then the movie ends on a BSOD.

Endless Love did so-so at the B.O., nothing compared to success enjoyed by the theme song courtesy of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, which wound up becoming one of the most popular tunes of the decade. And oh what a decade, the 1980s, a time when someone like Brooke Shields could be considered a sex symbol. Her acting has never been up to snuff, and she's laughably bad in Endless Love. She recites her lines like some imbecilic pixie whose wings I yearn to crush underneath my all-black Converse low-tops. She stands still, stares straight ahead, her features frozen as if she's expecting a backhand slap for burning the meatloaf, and that's supposed to suffice as a "look of love." Shields brings to the crucial role all the sex appeal of an armless Barbie doll and all the intelligence of the kid responsible for ruining his sister's most beloved toy.

But she's hardly alone in shouldering the blame. Franco Zeffirelli directed the much-loved 1968 Romeo and Juliet, and Endless Love was basically his attempt at a modern recreation. The problem is that Endless Love at its core is about one young man's staggering appetency. There's depressingly little of that--you know, what made Spencer's work so enrapturing in the first damn place--in the movie. Certainly, Hollywood could have done much better than this sloppy, lusterless transfer. 

Instead, they did much worse.

Director-Shana Feste
Writers-Shana Feste, Joshua Safran

Butterfields, meet the Butterfields. Hugh (Bruce Greenwood) and Anne (Joely Fisher) have one son, had one son, and their only daughter, Jade (Gabriella Wilde) is headed for Brown U. in the fall. She's oh-so gorgeous, precarious as an angels sneeze, precious as a puppy dog's snore. She is the object of a crush held by classmate David Elliot (Alex Pettyfor). When the Butterfields roll up to a restaurant where David and his buddy work as valets, he gets up the gumption to approach Jade after she drops her yearbook. She responds with an invitation to her graduation party.

Said party is real lame. If this is how rich teenagers let their hair down, hand me the scissors posthaste. Jade and David sneak off for a couple minutes heaven, only to get caught by pretty much every other attendee (exciting stuff for this soiree; I promise you no one left with a blood alcohol level about .008). Hugh takes David out for a brief man-to-boy chat, with David insisting that his intentions are pure.

Initiate ingratiation process.

Ever the mechanic's son, David decides to fix the car that's been sitting in the Butterfield driveway since the death of its owner. (It doesn't dawn on David that Hugh might not want his late son's car to be resurrected.) He has dinner with the family and makes an immediate positive impression on Anne. Who isn't around to watch, however, when David sneaks back in later that same evening to spend quality time with her daughter.

Ann also clearly had not expressed to Jade the importance of not making critical decisions until at least twelve hours after your most recent orgasm. Because she's telling her parents, oh hey I'm just gonna forego that internship at the exalted university, guys. And I invited my boyfriend along to our vacation at the lake house, isn't love grand? Y'know, like a piano?

Hugh remains a non-fan, and the vibe becomes mutual when David catches the older man tearing a chunk off a side piece.

I am ready to tear off my left thumbnail and stab myself in both eyes with it.

David and Jade break into a local zoo with some pals, 'cause that's painful. Somebody snitches, and David winds up cuffed. Hugh learns that his little girl's paramour has quite the record. Still, he's willing to bail the little shit out--so long as Jade agrees to do her internship. Oh, and break up with David. Who responds by punching Hugh. Who responds by taking out a restraining order.

Right thumbnail, I didn't forget you.

Months pass. David spots Anne in a bookstore. Jade is flying into town for the holidays. Gee, Anne, you should arrange for David to meet up with her. In fact, David should come to the house.

Hugh takes the younger man's presence there as well as my eyes have taken to being jabbed at with keratin toothpicks. Jade calls her pops out for being a domineering prick since his son's death. A fight breaks out, and a lit candle falls to the floor.**

It's fine, I still have eight others left.

Time to wrap this bitch up like a fish enchilada. A wedding on a beach in California! David and Jade? No, Keith Butterfield and his woman. But David and Jade are right there, soaking in the sun and seeping up the sand. We have now entered a No Ambiguity Zone! Min'na shiawase? Min'na shiawase.

What in the incredible, edible fuck happened? How does someone read Endless Love and translate it as a sickeningly vapid extended clothing ad with British mannequins in the lead roles? Gormless, gutless, spineless, mindless, without heart, lacking soul, worm-infested, bird-chested, but hey! You wanna watch it, knock yourself out. Because that's what you'll wind up doing.

(I do rather like the ending, though, for two reasons. First, because it marks the conclusion of a soaped-up cliche party. Second, it features "Don't Find Another Love" by Teagan and Sara. Hooray for movies that wait until their final minutes to do anything right!)

The 1981 film was clearly based on the novel. I can imagine the scriptwriter being given a copy and instructed to work bunnies-and-quarters. I recognize the events happening onscreen. The tone is completely off, not to mention the transitions, but hey, they tried.

Vis-a-vis the 2014 offering, I refuse to believe anyone involved in the making of that claptrap actually read Scott Spencer's work. They read Twilight, or The Notebook. Hop On Pop, perhaps. But no one actually looked to Endless Love for inspiration. Curious, I know, but there's no other explanation I can offer without getting borderline slanderous.

Scott Spencer was no fan of Zeffirelli's movie, and called Feste's flick "even more egregiously and ridiculously misunderstood." Which was awful nice of him to say, all things considered. I am gobsmacked at how both films missed the point of the novel, especially the latter. A viewer ignorant of the source material could be easily forgiven for assuming it to be asinine YA piffle in the collapsed vein of Sparks, Meyer, et. al. Which goes beyond being a shame. It's really a goddamn sin.

Outwardly diffident, inwardly berserk, David Axelrod feels with maximum intensity. The love he felt with Jade Butterfield never had the chance to settle down. Perhaps it couldn't have. Is David a bad person? He is a law-breaker, an impulsive truth-susser, a compulsive liar, and left to his own devices he crumbles apart as fantasy and reality lock limbs and fumble around in a windowless room, until his only option is to bury his face into a pillow and leak.

The brooding boy becomes a moody man. Possibly he is bullied by women, possibly the toxicity of individualism rendered his parents incapable of properly raising a child, thus dooming David before he even uttered his first sound, leaving him ill-prepared for a world that will not give a damn about his backstory.

All David Axelrod wanted was to be part of the Butterfield family. A family so unlike his own, where experimentation is encouraged and the lines of communication aren't mere dashes or hyphens. He wants a mother who'll regard him with something besides pity and paranoia. He wants a father who will discipline him. He wants siblings to fight with, to confide in. He is jealous. He is consumed. He craves air.

He watches passively as love fails around him. He is envied for his passion, his great fortune, even as he suspects he's been cursed with an essential stink, this unfortunate odor that is indiscernible to mere passersby. Eventually, the avidity loses its poignancy and charm. Conscience rot sets in.

He is, to a point, deserving of our sympathy.

He is an arsonist, not a murderer or a rapist. Should he, should anyone, be defined by one action? Is any single decision, or response, so bad, or so good as to mark a person for life?

The novel is David's song: of innocence and guilt, of grace and sin. It's not only better in my head, I suspect it's even better in his head.

Both films are bogged down by underwhelming acting. Martin Hewlitt looks like Mark Ruffalo in The Greg Brady Story, but I'll still take him over a male model so nondescript I imagine his own parents would struggle picking him out of a police lineup. Brooke Shields is a flapjack with legs and PTSD, but that other chick is the Sen Dog to my Mack-10.

Both films include the fireplace sex. Neither manages to make said sex actually sexy. Can you believe we didn't get the period sex? The first film replaces it with almost-rape. Fuck that noise. Gimme twenty-plus pages of blood, sweat, boy blast and girl gravy.

"Lola" by the Kinks plays over the PA system at the nuthouse when David learns Jade has a new last name. This struck me as a bit amusing, considering David Axelrod is on the shortlist for "Most Passionate Guy In Twentieth-Century English Literature."

The frequent mention of family friends, memories of times spent with members of extended family, some of whom offer favors they actually intend to honor, I tell ya, all that reads like sci-fi to somebody like me. Emotional and spiritual collapse, the unshakeable certainty that no one understands, the fear that if you sit still long enough you will hear a sand pile being born...I can relate to all that. Conversations with cousins? Hosting parties? Weirdo stuff.

I like Scott Spencer; I like anyone who knows a cat wouldn't be satisfied with just the one bird. Dude should never have to pay for a meal or a drink ever.

Redman Pants--AKA, "gasoline drawers."

Everyone misplaced their stuff over the Ritchie/Ross duet, but listen here--"Heart of Glass" and "I Was Made For Loving You." Bang, boom, Blondie and Kiss. Two rock bands whose stabs at disco made them pariahs among their original fantasies while at the same time bringing them further exposure and wealth.

So, fellas. REAL LOVE means not caring that a woman is bleeding from the place you want to stick your dick.

Is "failure flecks" a type of film grain?

Zeffirelli's film does surpass the book once. The moment when Hugh Butterfield is struck in the street is described by David/Spencer thusly: "It looked like a stunt." And in the movie it is, a seriously impressive end-over-end flip that would probably get closer to the props it deserves were it not part of a much larger wreck.

I could have made a better adaptation using just a dynamite stick, a mousetrap and "Obsession" by Animation.

Ann waves goodbye to Jade near the end of the 1981 movie the same way she waved goodbye to David near the end of the novel. Kind of a cool touch.

Love corrupts, hate purifies. Other way? Either way?

*Why would you introduce a new character to "inspire" David to set the fire? Character Compromise 101.
**Why would you make it not arson? Story Betrayal 101.