Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Better In Your Head?--PLAY IT AS IT LAYS

Joan Didion

"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.
Director-Frank Perry
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.

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.

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.

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