The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


Herbert Langer, Filmmaker (excerpt)

Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by Testaccio Press to ask if I wanted to preview their forthcoming book of interviews Herbert Langer, Filmmaker.  I was amazed that anyone of consequence had noticed my little blog, let alone think that I had anything to contribute to this important enterprise.  The proof copy arrived in March.  It is wonderful.  I was embarrassed that up until this point, I have absolutely no mention of Langer’s work, even though I am a great admirer, as I imagine anyone who reads these posts is.

I gave my effusive feedback to Testaccio Press and with a modicum of chutzpah I asked if they would mind if I posted some selections on this blog.  Understandably, they didn’t want me to use any of the interview material but they were happy to allow me to reprint the introduction by film critic and film historian Iris Walker.

The book is scheduled to come out late Fall 2019.  You’ll love it.



Herbert Langer, Filmmaker
– By Iris Walker

When I heard of the death this morning of the director Herbert Langer, I remembered a particular car ride with him. We were in a limo provided by the American Film Federation that was taking us from his home in the Hudson River Valley down to the Archer Brookstone Theater. It was November 25, 1991, and the Federation was finally acknowledging him with their Living Legend Award Retrospective.

“I’m glad for their sake they didn’t wait much longer,” he quipped mordantly, ‘otherwise they probably would have had to find someone else.”

We both laughed at the time, since his longevity hardly seemed in danger. Indeed, of the giants of his generation of filmmakers, he was one of the few still actively involved in the world of cinema. Welles, Hitchcock, Huston were all gone. But Langer seemed to be thriving.

He had recently published The History of Cinema, the Cinema of History, his exhaustive survey of American film. That remarkable achievement behind him, he had finally agreed to the Federation’s request to mount a tribute to him. The original request had come as long ago as 1978, when he was involved in the Wesleyan Shakespeare Trilogy. His refusal to delay what was perceived as a case of cinema pro bono work in order to help the committee prepare for the tribute was not taken kindly by the Federation.

They waited another 10 years before the next offer was made.  I was on the committee during that time and I will confess it was no small task to muster enthusiasm for Langer. He fit no easily classifiable genre. He was not an innovative technician like Welles. For all his penetrating observation of cinema as Zeitgeist in the History, his work seems curiously remote from the times in which they were created. Plus, he didn’t fit into any easily digested nostalgia group.

The committee at that time was evenly split between the old guard auterists and what would soon be recognized as the Generation-X sensibility, those putting forth the conviction that if it isn’t of their time it is bogus (to use their overused adjective), and if it is, what is the big deal anyway? The lamentable influx of this group was yet another example of a liberal arts group shooting themselves in the foot in order to be perceived as both relevant and as offending no one.

As Chair of the Committee, I wielded some power over this incompatible group. I insisted, under pain of banishment, that all twelve of them attend a showing of Retribution I scheduled at the Federation’s screening room. I was astounded that only two of the twelve has seen it before.

The screening had a curious result. As that remarkable, unclassifiable film unreeled, the group was utterly silent. There wasn’t even sniggering at Paulette Goddard’s valiant struggle with the pseudo-Biblical language. When it was over, the reaction in the auteurist camp was predictable. A quick scrambling to find clear cases of the Langer signature in the work, drawing makeshift connections with Don Juan’s Last Night. Some fleeting observations fingering influences as far flung as Flaherty (!) and Murnau. Once the ten-minute pigeon-holing was done, the old guard was quiet.

Then Brian Castle, bless his jaded, little 26-year-old soul, broke the silence. “Man,’ he said, ‘where the hell did that come from? I mean, what was that? Iris, can I borrow a copy?” I knew then the Tribute was just a matter of time: the strange atmospherics of Retribution had worked their charms on the most blasé of our members.

Unfortunately, within five days of contacting Langer, he slipped on the ice in front of his home, breaking his arm and five ribs. Knowing that it would be useless and inappropriate to try to mount a tribute for such a completist artist without his full cooperation, we postponed it until we could be assured of his complete participation.

So here we were, finally, after almost fourteen years of trying, in a limo headed toward the Brookstone.

I got to know Langer quite well during the six months of research and compilation leading up to the tribute. Many nights were spent at his house in Irvington over Chinese take-out, listening to the stories of his career. He was never sentimental or morbid.

For that reason, the sudden sullenness after his joke on his mortality struck me as something odd. Were the years catching up with him? Did that somber tilt of the head betray a darker side that he hadn’t let out previously?

“What’s wrong, Herbert?”

“Oh, Iris, it’s nothing. Well, no, it is something. They are going to show that clip from the end of Don Juan at the climax of Castle’s speech.”

‘That clip’, as he so cavalierly described it, is, of course, the legendary final scene of the Don as his is dragged down to Hell. The astounding two minute and forty-seven seconds tight long-take of Dale Hunt’s beautiful, tortured face had permanently altered the way films have ended since it first appeared in 1942.

“But Herbert, of course they are going to show it. It is your single most famous image.”

He looked at me, sighed one of his famous Yiddish-inflected sighs, smiled at me and said, “The camera should have been two feet back.”

I was stunned. A whole world of perceptions turned over in me. That shot, indeed, Don Juan’s Last Night in its totality is generally regarded as a perfect piece of art, complete and absolutely finished. Yet, here was the creator telling me that it fell short of the masterpiece he was aiming for. It was Wagner saying Tristan und Isolde ended on the wrong chord. It was Tolstoy saying Anna Karenina was too long. It was Monet saying that the waterlilies should have been more yellow.

But, suddenly, I was able to see it, too. The shot was more detailed, the devils and flames in the background more apparent. The head shot of Hunt replaced by a torso shot, the open shirt revealing that sensuous neck and chest.

He was right. It was better. But – what if he had shot it half a foot closer, with the incredible intensity heightened even more?

As if he read my thoughts, he said, “Iris, nothing is ever finished.”

As I watched the clip after Brian’s tribute speech, I thought of this. I knew that it wasn’t the accomplishments but the endless creativity of Herbert Langer that was being fêted that evening.

– Iris Walker, February 25, 2019































What’s A Critic To Do? This!

A few weeks ago, I ran into some former neighbors at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  After an amazing performance by a Paris-based company of some plays by Ionesco, we discussed the CST’s current production of King Lear.  We were all very familiar with the play, and obviously cared a great deal about it.  We expressed dissatisfaction with the production, primarily because we felt that it reduced the majesty of the play and trivialized the enormous emotional impact which any performance of King Lear should attempt to capture.

All of our considerations were based on a deep understanding of the play and a clear-eyed view of what was served up to us during the production.  We all were in cordial agreement that we were very disappointed in the performance. But then my former neighbor said something that struck me as odd.    He expressed satisfaction that we were all of the same mind but said, with great concern  ‘But Chris Jones loved it!’   This was offered up as something else that we needed to puzzle out.

It was an epiphany moment for me.

Why should I care what the theater critic of the Chicago Tribune cares about a performance?  Yes, he sees a lot of theater and he is in a position that makes him an arbiter of opinion, but ultimately, I realized, it is just an opinion as mine was just an opinion, as my former neighbor’s was just an opinion, and so on.

The epiphany was that there is no person that is as exalted, but also as unnecessary, as a critic who writes reviews (film, book, theater, restaurant) for a newspaper or magazine.

Is there a use for a critic? Most definitely: a critic should be a teacher.  A critic should explain how to encounter great works of art. Period.  Personal opinion is largely irrelevant.   Of course, there would be an implicit personal opinion by the choice of what the critic would choose to write about, but that is as far as it should go.

Why was Chris Jones’ opinion so fraught with gravitas for my neighbor? Because Jones’ position has been invested with almost oracular powers.  What is only opinion is viewed as irrefutable fact.

The argument can be made that there are so many films, books, plays, restaurants out there that we need someone to weed through them all and tell us which deserves our attention or which we can safely pass on.  Unfortunately, the comfort that would come from such advice is illusory.   The opinion expressed is a confluence of tastes and prejudices that come from a lifetime of play-watching, moviegoing, food eating, book reading, etc. And this can only be meaningful to the person experiencing them.

Another case could be made that since this person has seen more, read more or eaten more, the mere volume of what he has experienced gives more credence to what he has to say.  This is a false assumption on two counts: 1) it still remains a personal opinion although backed by more material than most of us have at hand, and 2) the scope of the seeing, reading and eating can create a ennui that comes from repetitive activity.  Often a negative review belies a certain bitchiness that arises from boredom.  This can’t be useful to anyone.

Another wrinkle in this whole discussion is the advent of competition in popular culture. American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Iron Chef, all these shows create the illusion that we can know who the best singer, dancer or chef is. What is particularly concerning about this competition, is the humiliation of the loser.

At a recent musical evening I hosted at my apartment, I played a song by Edward Elgar which, to my amazement, had a very hostile reception. One of my younger listeners explained her negative reaction by saying, ‘I prefer Benjamin Britten.’  Well,  she was certainly entitled to that prejudice, but does that explain why she didn’t like the Elgar? Perhaps an explanation of what in Britten appeals to her that she finds lacking in Elgar would have helped to explain her feelings, but without that, it becomes a bout of Rock’em-Sock’em English Composers, which for some reason Elgar lost.   One can’t denigrate one thing because it is not another.  You can say you would prefer listening to Britten, which in her defense is what she said, but you can’t say he is intrinsically better than Elgar, which seemed to be what she was implying.  There is no logic to the statement.

Even widely regarded institutions like the every-ten-years Sight+Sound Magazine poll of the greatest movies of all time should be viewed skeptically.   Citizen Kane occupied the number one spot in every poll from 1962 through 2002.  In 2012, it was knocked out of that spot by Vertigo.  But just what does this mean? Had Vertigo  become better than Citizen Kane between the years 2002 and 2012?   Obviously not.  What does the poll tell us, then? That we are living at a time when critics are more disposed toward Vertigo than to Citizen Kane.  That might tell us something about the times we live in, but it tells us nothing about the independent merits of either film.

So,  what is a critic to do? As I said before, a critic should teach.  You prefer Britten? Fine. Take the time to explain to me the qualities he has. Make a case for it.  But part of your case can’t be that he is ‘better’ that Elgar.  That is your opinion, and that never matters.  Sure, explaining what you think is good about something is also your opinion, but it is your opinion in service of education, and therefore valid.  I also believe it always better to explain why something is good, than to broadcast why you think something is bad.

I may be called hypocritical since not long ago I wrote  a long piece about why I hated Blue Jasmine.  My defense is that this opinion was expressed in the context of a bigger discussion of the crash and burn of Woody Allen’s career as a whole. My other defense is that it is only my opinion, and is being presented as such. Those who are interested in what I have to say can consider it, those who don’t can turn to the next blog.

So, in conclusion, we don’t need opinions, we need instruction.   We don’t need a discussion of John Ford’s westerns being better than Howard Hawks’ westerns, but we need an explanation of why both are great.

I may be naïve, but getting rid of awards, star-ratings and daily reviews may force people to be more engaged in their aesthetic development, and less willing to outsource their opinions and taste to others.

Want an example of what I think is appropriate (and brilliant) criticism?  Read A.C Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy

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All About Midrash


 A method was developed in the  literature of commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures to flesh out stories that either seem to be hinting at something more than is on the page, or to fill in what appear to be gaps in logic.  This amplification of the text is known as midrash, the root of which is the Hebrew word for ‘to search out a meaning’ or ‘to research’.  When developing midrash the assumption is that the text is perfect.  What appears to be inconsistencies are really our inadequacies of understanding.  Repeated study and deepening familiarity with the text eventually reveals answers.

For example, Cain is forced to wander after slaying his brother. He finally settles in the land of Nod and has a family. Even the youngest student will say ‘Wait a minute, I though Adam and his family were the only people on the earth. Who are these Nod people?’  Midrash to the rescue! Perhaps God created other nations during the goings-on in the Garden of Eden. That would explain it! This detail was just left out of Genesis.  Raising the possibility of these other nations serves an important purpose beyond this apparent game-playing with the text:  by quashing a possibly nervous-making gap in the story, the student can move on to the real meat of the passage instead of being distracted by something not in the text.

But it can’t be a free-for-all. It is incumbent upon the reader to find a way that the text itself answers any questions. A possible solution must be teased out from what is on the page.

 All about eve

The whole notion of midrash came to mind when I was watching All About Eve with my dear friend Donna who had never seen it before. All About Eve is a film that I watch several times a year and one that I am evangelical about. If I find that you have not seen it and I deem you worthy, I will inflict its perfection on you. While this perfection is certainly not biblical, it is certainly among the one or two perfect creations of the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Acting, writing and production values are greater than in just about any other Hollywood product I can think of. No, it is not Bergman or Bresson. We’re not talking about that kind of perfection. It is just a solid entertainment that somehow slips into the sublime.

When the viewing was over, my friend commented that while she liked it, she found the opening and set-up of the story contrived to the point that it almost wrecked the enjoyment of the rest of the film. I know the film so well that the beginning is just the beginning to me, just like the way Cain goes off to marry into this heretofore unexplained people. It is just what happened.

I always bristled at the comment that a film wasn’t believable. I always felt that critics who took this tack to deride a film (and the late Gene Siskel was a prime offender here), had no business reviewing films because they obviously were not equipped to deal with the artifice of the genre. My friend asserted that this was not the case with her. She was as ready to suspend disbelief as the next person. It was just that the particular setup was too clunky.

I thought about it for days. Was this most beloved film seriously flawed and I had just been blind to it?  Midrash to the rescue! Donna felt that the set-up of Eve entering so completely into the lives of these theater folk was too slap-dash.  Once the story got going, she was able to forget the problems she had with the set-up, and enjoyed the rest of the movie.  Was there something midrashically  implicit in the story that could be developed into something that could mollify my friend and let us all get on with the task of reveling in what was obviously wonderful about the movie? As a matter of fact, yes:

1- Karen’s first flashback starts with her getting out of a taxi and looking for an unnamed person who will turn out to be Eve.  Eve emerges from the shadows, and the story begins.

2- When Karen describes Eve to Margo in the dressing room, Margo remembers her as  ‘The mousy one with the trench coat and the funny hat’

These two points indicate to us who have viewed the film countless times, that even before the movie’s story begins, Eve has been hard at work zeroing in on her prey.  Both Karen and Margo are aware of her peripherally and are predisposed to sympathize with her. Her pathetic image night after night at the theater, cultivated with just the right costume and hushed, modest voice had worked well enough that once she gets into the dressing room, she moves in for the kill.  The group is putty in her hands.  It’s all there in a few hints in the screenplay.

Will this midrash on All About Eve mollify Donna’s displeasure at a perceived plot gap?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it sure takes care of it for me an allows me to put it to rest.








O Woody! Where Art Thou?

I avoided Woody Allen’s films prior to Annie Hall when they were first being released.  They seemed sophomoric and stupid.  I did go to see Love And Death when it came out and I found it sophomoric and smart.  Woody Allen was not for me. I got the Borscht Belt humor, I got the nebbish shtick. It all just seemed dopey.

In the fall of 1976 I left for Germany to do my Senior year abroad. Kids studying abroad today don’t have withdrawal for things and people back home like we did.  Email, Facebook and Skype have changed that. One never feels disconnected from one’s ‘real’ life. During that year the high point of my day would be the when the mail was delivered to the dorm, followed immediately by the low point of the day when the manager of the dorm would sadistically say to me, ‘Heute nicht, Herr Brown’ (Not today, Mr. Brown), creating a crush of disappointment lasting until the next hopeful mail delivery the next day.

When the year was up in July and I got home, I was severely disoriented. Suddenly, I was able to understand everything that was happening around me and not just what my level of German allowed me to understand. I could now read every sign, get every joke and understand every overheard conversation. All the mysteries and difficulties of my year in Germany were suddenly gone. I was back to where I was before I left for college – in my parents’ house in deepest Brooklyn.  I was told by a friend that I really needed to see the new Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall.  It was hilarious, she told me, quoting the line about the only cultural advantage LA has over New York is that you can make a right turn on red. I thought “ More dumb Woody Allen humor”. Well, Annie Hall happened to be playing at the Canarsie Theater, our neighborhood third run movie house. So, I went.  And I was transfigured.

From the face-on opening monologue, right through the wistful ending, the movie showered down on me everything I had been deprived of over the past year: Brooklyn of my childhood and the Brooklyn that came before me, Yiddishkeit, the glory of New York City, crazy older Jewish relatives – everything I had missed.  Woody Allen was speaking directly to me, saying: ‘This is what you have been starving for! And you weren’t wrong to long for it! It’s the really great stuff’. I wandered out of the Canarsie Theater dazzled.

I must have seen Annie Hall at least five times that summer. Besides the very personal ‘welcome home’ message, I was thrilled watching a film by a director firing on all cylinders.  Everything flowed, there wasn’t a false note – I never once doubted the voice of the director. I knew that Allen was obsessively Jewish and an evangelical New Yorker and recognized those characteristics in the film. But even if it had been made by Rossellini, the work itself had such integrity that I was swept up in it from beginning to end. The social observations, the triste romance and, not least, the performance of Diane Keaton make it compulsively watchable in the way that All About Eve and The Shop Around The Corner are compulsively watchable. It was the film of a great, wholly integrated artist and not just a Woody Allen movie.

I remember the general reaction to Interiors, which followed Annie Hall, as being respectful.  This is a new Woody Allen, we told ourselves, he is stretching himself as an artist and if he wants to venture into Ingmar Bergman family drama, God bless him.

Luckily, Manhattan followed.  By that time I was a devoted reader of Andrew Sarris’ weekly column in the Village Voice.  His review for Manhattan was titled something like ‘Woody, You’re The Top’.  With that echo of the bygone sophistication of Cole Porter’s New York City of the 30s, for me the review was Allen’s official installation into the highest echelon of Sarris’ Pantheon (see his book The American Cinema).


To be living in New York at the time that each new Woody Allen film came out was pretty heady stuff for me. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy pleased me with its homage to Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. Stardust Memories pleased me with its homage to Fellini’s 8 ½. Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig and Radio Days pleased me with their great wit and heart. The arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters seemed to solidify Allen’s place in the cinematic firmament for me.

Then Crimes and Misdemeanors happened. I never bought the existential questions of this movie. The big probing moral issues raised never involved me. In fact, I found the whole enterprise quite smarmy – and this was to be a feature of Allen films to come. Granted, this is only my reaction. A lot of people consider this among Allen’s best.

What was missing for me was the sure-footedness of the preceding films. It wasn’t so much that I needed the schlemiel persona of Allen to make a film. What I did need to feel is that there was a steady hand guiding the enterprise.

Allen embarked on an extraordinarily prolific period at that time which lasts until today. His films are astounding for the amazing talent he assembles in front of and behind the camera. His acting ensembles invariably feature leading actors of the day as well as future stars. One of Meryl Streep’s first roles was a cameo part in Manhattan as the protagonist’s angry now-lesbian ex-wife.  In retrospect the role is a bit of a cliché but still, it’s swell to see Streep at the beginning of her glorious career.  He even got Max Von Sydow, Bergman’s chess playing knight, and Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cinematographer, to be part of his  projects.

I understand that being prolific is good that the artist can work through themes and stylistic interests, but the danger is that a lot of inferior work can be the result.  Ingmar Bergman himself, Allen’s greatest idol, was also extraordinarily prolific and it is fascinating to watch what Bergman does with many of the same themes and actors over time. It can also get tedious when the work is less than polished and the mark is missed.

I began skipping the new Allen releases especially after seeing Mighty Aphrodite which I found sordid. Watching his earlier films again was shocking, as well. I always want to hold the author’s life story at arm’s length when considering the work, unless it is an author who is unapologetically biographical and doesn’t want you to ignore the personal aspects of the work. So, I tried to ignore the salacious stories about Allen’s private life.  However, I did find it hard to watch Manhattan again and view the protagonist’s relationship with the 17 year old Mariel Hemingway character through the same romantic filter I did back in 1979.  The ickiness factor prevailed. However, if that were the only problem, I could have still loved it the way I did when it was released.

For me, that easiness and sure-handedness of Annie Hall is gone. I go back to see his new films when they get public and popular acclaim, which is why I went to see Midnight In Paris. I hoped that all I was hearing about it would bode well. Alas.  I was amazed at the woodenness of the characters and the pretentiousness of the plot.  What could have been a delightful fantasy devolved into a dull name-dropping exercise.  “Hello old chap, the name’s Fitzgerald, Scott Fitzgerald and this is my wife Zelda.  We’re all going to a party at Gertrude Stein’s. You must join us.’  These are not exact quotes, but they convey the hollowness of the thing.  I found it so curious. I couldn’t figure out who the film was intended for. I felt that the audience members who knew who all these historical figures were would feel cheated by the shallowness of the treatment, and the audience members who didn’t know who they were wouldn’t care about the whole thing.

I had great hope for Blue Jasmine.  The acclaim for Cate Blanchett’s performance made it sound like Eleanora Duse had returned from the dead. What I actually encountered was an overplayed but less interesting version of Blanche DuBois.  As Streetcar Named Desire parallels became more apparent, I really got angry.  It all seemed like intellectual laziness in the guise of a big statement about …..what?  That being rich makes you shallow? That can’t be it since he lovingly depicts every detail of Blanchett’s super-rich New York life with voyeuristic delight.  We are hard-pressed to find a note of criticism in how she is portrayed.  Yes, she is nasty and condescending to lesser mortals, but wow  that apartment and wow those clothes! There is no question that you would rather live her ‘shallow’ Manhattan existence than live her sister Sally Hawkins’ squalid life as a Stella Kowalski stand-in with her Stanley played by Bobby Cannavale. We get signals that we should think that Cannavale and Hawkins are ‘salt of the earth’ and the people we should care about, but whole dichotomy of the good Hawkins San Francisco world versus the bad Blanchett New York world collapses for lack of support. Ironically the Hawkins world is so ugly, even though it is located in San Francisco, ostensibly the most beautiful city in the country!  Another anti-California jab?  I might also mention that Cannavale’s character made me recall other caricatures of Italians that appear at least as early as Annie Hall. The Italians in his films are almost invariably cartoonish, stupid and shown in a border-line racist way. I suppose one could say the same about his portrayal of the older Jewish characters, but they are from the inside out, and because of that, there seems to be more kindness and depth to the portrayal.

All of these plot problems coupled with a dull visual style really made me despair that I would ever love a Woody Allen movie again. He has become lost in pretensions and insincerities that blocks out what was original and pure in Annie Hall.   I will be hopeful, though, and continue to go to the new ones as they come out. You see, I need the eggs.


Some Thoughts On Adaptation

cloud_atlas_book_cover_01cloud atlas poster

Seeing the film Cloud Atlas was an extremely satisfying experience for me. I fear, though, it is an experience that someone who has not read and loved David Mitchell’s novel cannot have.  For me the pleasure of watching the film came from observing how the directors and screenwriters transformed this most literary of novels into an overwhelmingly cinematic film.

The novel Cloud Atlas is comprised of six stories told in chronological order, each story ending about midway through the narrative, followed by the beginning of the next story. The sixth story is told in its entirety, followed by the conclusion of each of the first five stories, told in backwards chronological order. This structure gives the book great forward motion and also helps underline the commonalities of character and plot throughout the six stories.

The filmmakers, apparently with David Mitchell’s blessing, did away with this keystone structure and instead continually intercut the six stories. A few minutes in the South Pacific of Adam Ewing would be followed by a scene in Timothy Cavendish’s ‘ghastly ordeal’ which in turn would be followed by a few minutes in the distant future Hawaii of Sloosha’s Crossing.  Most of the actors appear in all six stories, some in minor, some in major parts. Language is necessarily the tool that links the characters and stories in the book, but the very visual use of the same actors throughout achieves the same end cinematically.

One of the delights of the novel is Mitchell’s extraordinary ear for genre. The diction of the Adam Ewing story could have been cribbed from one of Melville’s South Sea novels, Sonmi-451’s  Nea So Copros will feel familiar to readers of dystopic science fiction, the Belgium of Robert Frobisher is evocative of the nostalgia of Brideshead Revisited. The Luisa Rey story is a very 70s detective story.

By substituting visuals for the written word, the filmmakers have hit upon a successful way to convey the various genres.  Adam Ewing’s story is filmed with the sweep of films like Mutiny on the Bounty. Robert Frobisher’s story is drenched with the Merchant-Ivory style of Edwardian drama that signals ‘classic’. The clothes, colors and pacing of Luisa Rey’s tale is reminiscent of 70s detective films and television shows such as Starsky and Hutch. Timothy Cavendish’s ‘ghastly ordeal’ is evoked in BBC comedy visuals. Sonmi-451’s nightmare Korea relies heavily on Blade Runner tropes to depict its world. Only Zachry’s  tale has its own visual style, but this echoes the fact that this part of the book was written in a first person narrative given in a hybrid English of Mitchell’s devising.

The curious thing about the film is that, though you can tell from the above description, we are dealing with filmmakers who adore the source material, we are also dealing with filmmakers who, in the service of bringing the source material to the screen have completely changed almost every plot in the novel.  The transformation to films was totally successful for me, even though, while remaining true to the spirit of the book, the filmmakers necessarily played fast and loose with the letter of the book:

Spoilers follow!

1-    Adam Ewing’s saga is fairly faithful to the novel, but necessarily more streamlined

2-    Robert Frobisher’s story becomes less about the creative genius of the characters than about the sordid interactions of the characters, while leaving out the women in the novel entirely.  There is almost no resemblance to the novel when this story reaches the screen

3-    Luisa Rey’s story is also a pretty straightforward filming of the story as is

4-    Timothy Cavendish’s wonderfully ghastly story

5-    Sonmi-451’s story of evolving consciousness and growing political awareness is lost in the Blade Runner trappings, replete with a romance with a hunky revolutionary and lots and lots of explosions and chases.

6-    Zachry is portrayed as a much older man and his relationship with Meronym is not one of mentor/student but one in which they begin as rivals and wind up as lovers on a distant planet.

I’m sure that there will be outcry from the book’s fans about these deviations, but I maintain that there could probably be no better way to bring this extraordinary novel to the screen. I can indulge the tinkering by recognizing the love with which it was done.  An interesting contrast would be the Harry Potter series, movies which are slavishly faithful to their source material, but are ultimately unmemorable.  The Lord of the Rings films are also failures in this respect as the changes they make to bring the book to the screen, such as the interminable battle scenes, do not express the true nature of the books in a cinematic way.  Cinematic devices are used despite the source material

This made me begin to consider the nature of cross-genre adaptation in general. Most ‘classic’ novels filmed during the 30s and 40s are woefully inadequate or seem to be produced by people who have just the barest notion of what the original was about.  The 1939 Wuthering Heights is a perfect example of a misreading of a classic. Half the plot is jettisoned and what remains is a high-flown romantic depiction of romantic figures running on the romantic moors. I am sorry, a Heathcliff as beautiful as Laurence Olivier completely misses the point of his character.  The MGM Madame Bovary is another good example of this. The all-star David Copperfield, though,  is near-perfect.  This could be because the Dickens original is so cinematic. This could also be that, as much as I adore David Copperfield, it does not have the complexity of Wuthering Heights or Bovary.

dido aeneiddido grahamThe adaptation of literature into opera is rife with some pretty amazing things. We find Hamlets who survive to marry Ophelia and become king, for example, Romeo and Juliets who get to see each other in the tomb long enough to sing beautiful death duets are common.

A recent viewing of Berlioz’ magnificent Les Troyens underscored how source material can be altered and enhanced by adaptation to a musical form. Berlioz was obsessed with both Virgil and Shakespeare and his reworking of the Aeneid uses the latter to bring the
former to life on stage.  The classical purity of the Virgil poem is brought to life through the use of Shakespearean genre-bending. For example, scenes of high drama, such as Aeneas’ agonizing over how his inevitable departure to found Rome will destroy Dido is offset by a low-comic dialogue of two Trojan sailors expressing annoyance at how their new-found domesticity in Carthage is being threatened by the affairs of the great ones.  Both scenes compliment and enrich each other.

A fascinating change can be seen in the character of Dido. In the Aeneid,  her love for Aeneas is a result of the meddling of the goddesses Juno and Venus. In the Berlioz, the character is seen through a Romantic era lens.  All supernatural elements are gone and we watch a woman trying to be true to the memory of her beloved dead husband and trying to be a good queen to her young nation become completely undone by her own internal passions which she is not able to subdue.  This is a Dido for Berlioz’s time. Like the creators of the film Cloud Atlas, he has found a way to present her in a different genre.

I hope to continue this meditation on genre-crossing soon









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Netflix suggested that ‘I might like’ to watch When A Woman Ascends The Stairs by Mikio Naruse They were right. Ever since, I have made a study of that underappreciated master.  Unfortunately, all that was available in Region 1 format was the aforementioned masterpiece as well as five silent films, all from Criterion.   I read longingly of films that I despaired of ever seeing, films with intriguing titles like Floating Clouds, The Sound of the Mountain and Lightning.   I kept watching When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, amazed at how such a work of genius was hardly known, and foisting it on anyone who would sit still for it.

Much to my amazement, this past winter, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films programmed a series featuring the collaboration of Naruse with his muse, the actress Hideko Takemine, who so reluctantly ascends those stairs.  Week after week, I sat in the Max Palevsky Theater transfixed.  I was also thrilled that the theater was packed every week. Since those glorious ten weeks, I was able to get my hands on copies of some of the films shown in the series, as well as others I had only read about.

Which brings me to Meshi.  The film stars the legendary Setsuko Hara, who was the muse of Yasujiro Ozu.  It subtly depicts the unraveling of a marriage.  After soul-crushing years of cooking and cleaning for her husband in Osaka,  Hara reaches a breaking point and returns on what seems like a permanent visit to her mother and siblings in Tokyo.   After some time, the husband appears in Tokyo. The two of them stroll the streets, discussing what their future might be.

Their conversation is interrupted by a bunch of young men in some kind of costume, playing music, circling an ornate box of some kind and generally making a large commotion.  Husband and wife look at each other, smile and begin the mending of the relationship.

This incident which was so well understood by the characters baffled me.  Of course, I was able to say to myself : ‘This ceremony is well known to a Japanese audience and either its significance or the nostalgia it evokes creates a healing bond between the characters.  Don’t worry about the specifics.’  I remained engrossed until the end of the picture.

I have immersed myself in all things Japanese for several years now, with a special concentration on Japanese film.   Good background reading, ranging from the wonderful Criterion Collection liner notes to Donald Richie’s magisterial A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, has been my Baedeker’s on my journey into Japanese culture and history. However, this scene jolted me.  I felt face to face with the unknowable. Sure, I could intellectualize the import of what I saw, but I would never know it on a gut level the way a Japanese audience would.  That thought made feel  that a full-scale assault on Japanese film was doomed.  The world I was intoxicated with was just too vast and too ‘other’ for me to completely lose myself in.

This began to seem a little too dramatic to me, so I began to think of similar experiences in other films.  I remembered the scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when the Dana Andrews character is working as a soda jerk and his service in the war is belittled by a yahoo wearing a prominently displayed  American Flag pin.  After making Andrews feel like a chump for his war service, the guy flashes the pin with a knowing smirk and Andrews goes ballistic.  And I have no idea what that pin signifies.  Once again, in the moment of watching the film I can tell myself ‘OK, this is some kind of isolationist jerk who clearly does not understand what our hero has been through. That’s enough for now’.   And of course it is. The audience of 1946 probably would know automatically what the pin and the guy wearing it signify.  The immediacy of that knowledge has receded with time.  Just like the immediacy of the ceremony in Meshi recedes behind a cultural mist.

The moral of the story is that you do assimilate by understanding the best you can.   One’s inconclusive attempts at understanding do bring you close to a kind of truth.