Sunday, May 20, 2012

American Splendor Revision


“American Splendor” is a comic book series written by Harvey Pekar about his life.  It was made into a film that captured the series’ self-reflexive nature very well, including multiple appearances by the real Harvey and the real people he wrote about in his work.   I believe the filmmakers successfully recreated the rebellious nature of the comic book, both narratively and stylistically. It breaks many established conventions, such as having the real people that Harvey wrote about as characters in the actual movie, but still having actors playing them too. Also, there is a point where the film switches from the "comic" world to real life, when we randomly cut from an insert shot  of jelly beans to a sound stage where the real Harvey interacts with the real Toby.  To point out the rebellious nature of this, the filmmakers show the actors playing the roles of Toby and Harvey watching the real people.  This served little narrative purpose, but was interesting and in keeping with the defiant nature of Harvey and the subsequent attitude of his comics. 

The style of the film lacks continuity, which exemplifies Harvey's search for identity as well. The film is searching to figure out what it is just like Harvey. I thought that captured the comic book style of the comics very well. A specific example for this quest for style is shown by the animation sequences that served as transitions between various retellings of the comics. I also think some of the heightened reality aspects of the comic translated well into the film because the film was so true to the original work. The perfect example of this is when Harvey Pekar's mysterious laryngitis is suddenly healed when his life finds new order.  Obviously this is not realistic, it is the stuff of a comic book - but, it serves the story and is thus a legitimate addition.  

I do not see Harvey as a hero, really, at least not in the traditional sense.  I think he went through a lot in his battle with cancer and his ability to overcome this and continue on with his life makes Harvey Pekar a hero by his own definition of heroism.  And also by the definition of Chris Vogler, Harvey is a hero because yes he does change by the end of the film - his outlook on life has changed and he has become more optimistic. So yes, Harvey does change.  

Finally, I think he does do a good job of showing life in a real way while still making comedic art.  But it’s comedy in a depressing way that shows life with an appropriate lack of glamour.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jesus' Son


Jesus’ Son, directed by Alison Maclean, was adapted from a novel by the same title, written by Denis Johnson.  It follows the journey of a “drug-enthusiast” (to put it lightly) named “Fuckhead”.  Or so it can be said that is his name – it’s the only title he is given in both the book and the movie.  The book Jesus’ Son is written in first person, giving the reader a special attachment to Fuckhead, while also giving him a universal quality.  In the cinematic adaptation, it was crucial for the filmmakers to recreate this viewer-protagonist relationship – and I believe they succeeded.  To some, the performance given by Billy Crudup, who played Fuckhead in the movie, seems flat; and it is “flat”, in a sense.  However, I believe it stands as one of the more successful attempts to capture a first person narrative in cinematic performance.  In other words, Billy Crudup did a good job of conveying the “permifried” stoner that is Fuckhead, which provided a slate for the viewer to experience the film through. Perhaps this wasn’t intentional, but regardless, I think his performance is one of the strongest aspects of the adaptation. 

Another strong aspect of the adaptation was how the filmmakers chose to execute the laundry room scene, making unostentatious but still fascinating use of special effects to mimic how Fuckhead saw a tattoo while he was tripping.  There was a fantastic build to the break in reality.  First, the lighting on Fuckhead was blue.  We cut away, and then when we returned to him, it was red.  The next cut was a man’s tattoo of a heart wrapped in barbed wire floating towards Fuckhead, expanding with each beat.  It was weird and cool and trippy, even.  And this is just one example of the filmmaker’s general success in portraying drug-influenced or related content.

On the other hand, I thought the introduction to Fuckhead’s main love interest was poor.  I understand the importance of conveying her as a free-spirited, loose hippie-chick, but the visuals did not entirely translate.  I thought she came off to brash – as a viewer, I wanted to fall in love with her too, not overcome revulsion to then understand her. 

For me, it was easier to understand Fuckhead’s emotional arc in a visual medium.  Perhaps because I was able to watch the movie in two sittings, whereas reading the book took much longer, but I was able to see how he changed more clearly in the movie.  I felt more connected to him, especially in the moment after he squished the baby animals.  This arcs back to my attraction to Crudup’s performance, but I believe those sorts of moments of emotional outburst are better experienced visually than through prose.  On the other hand, some events (like the naked, hangliding lady) is shocking to see in film but reads as much more beautiful and angelic in the book.  It’s all about which is more pleasant: the reality of something or our mind’s eye vision of it. 

Jesus’ Son has been my favorite adaptation of the semester because it fully used the cinematic medium to successfully convey the original message of the seminal text.  I enjoyed it immensely.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Clue - The Movie


In 1985, Jonathan Lynn directed an adaptation of the beloved board game "Clue". While the film did poorly at the box office, it eventually acquired a cult-like following - and rightfully so: it was an innovative and creative adaptation.  The filmmakers took full advantage of the unorthodox nature of their venture and exploited it for the greatest comedic effect.  Though it should not to be taken entirely seriously, “Clue” is inherently entertaining as a parody of the murder mystery genre.  In addition, it has most of the elements of a successful narrative. 

In the adaptation, they took the original six characters - Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Mrs. White, and Mr. Green - and added the Butler to the mix as the closest thing to a protagonist. The conflict in the film, as in the game, is figuring out who the murderer is.  However, the filmmaker’s raised the stakes: there is not only one victim (Mr. Body), but also five more (including household staff, a police man and a singing telegram) that amass over the course of the film.  Therefore, there is a greater sense of urgency for the characters because one of them might be next!  Furthermore, the tone is coherently a darker yet silly comedy.  For example, after about the fourth murder, the characters’ attitude towards the accumulating dead bodies gets fairly blasé, (though they are still worried about their own wellbeing). 

The largest narrative flaw of the film comes from an exploitation of playing with form, as legitimized by adapting a board game rather than something more orthodox.  The filmmakers chose to make three alternative endings that showed in different theaters.  So, if you went to see the movie when it was released, you would only see one of the three possible endings, an attempt to pay homage to their inspiration (the board game could end any number of ways).  When the DVD was released, they were presented in the following order.

In the first, Miss Scarlett killed everyone with the help of Yvette the maid (who she later killed).  In the second, Mrs. Peacock murdered all six victims single-handedly.  In the final ending, each guest, except Mr. Green, had killed one of the victims.  It was revealed that the Butler was, in fact, Mr. Boddy, their host and blackmailer.  Mr. Green murdered him upon this realization and was revealed to be an FBI plant.  Because each of these alternative endings had to feel equally right and satisfactory to the audience, there was no way to watch it and piece together how it would end.  The filmmakers had to leave it appropriately ambiguous.  Thus, while this corruption of the narrative structure makes sense conceptually, it was frustrating as an audience member.  Perhaps if they had made the choice – actually picked a resolution – then the audience could have been able to piece it together with the characters, which would have actually been a better reflection of the board game.

Still, “Clue” is an enjoyable and singular addition to the adaptation genre. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Smoke Signals


Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre, is often considered to be the first film written, directed and produced by Native Americans with Native American stars.  It was adapted from “That is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, as well as other short stories from Sherman Alexie’s short story collection.  In his work, Sherman Alexie tries to show the absurdity of Native American stereotypes and the negative effect they have on reservation mentality.  We are supposed to laugh at the stereotype and thus destroy its validity. 

Because the author of the primary text was so concerned with stereotypes, I believe it was an appropriate choice for the film adaptation to also play with stereotypes.  One of the more memorable scenes from the film occurs as a discussion between the two main characters regarding “what it means to be an Indian”.  This is an example of content playing with stereotypes.  In addition, the use of Hollywood conventions, which are stereotypes, further draws attention to this theme.  One example of such a convention is the whole set up of the road trip story, where a disparate pair goes on a journey and return as friends, both having been changed for the better.  It should be noted that while flashbacks are a Hollywood convention, especially when coupled with voice over, the filmmakers twist this convention and (in the beginning) blur the line between present day and flashbacks.  So, I believe that the filmmaker’s treatment of stereotypes, both in succumbing to and twisting them, works very well. 

Like many adaptations, this movie expands upon the original text and makes it more visual and classically dramatic.  This is not something to be criticized.  After all, stereotypes exist to generalize truth, and if a stylistic choice has become a Hollywood convention, it must have some sort of cinematic merit. 

All in all, an adaptation should be able to exist on its own as a piece of art.  Still, to truly remain as an adaptation, I believe there should still be some reminiscence of the original author’s intention.  Smoke signals is a prime example of this.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

American Splendor


“American Splendor” is a comic book series written by Harvey Pekar about his life.  It was made into a film that captured the series’ self-reflexive nature very well, including multiple appearances by the real Harvey and the real people he wrote about in his work.   I believe the filmmakers achieved their goal to try and recreate the rebellious nature of the comic book, both narratively and stylistically. Breaking many conventions, such as having the real people that Harvey wrote about as characters in the actual movie, but still having actors playing them too, does this.  Also, The random cut from the insert of the jelly beans to the sound stage where we see the real Harvey interacting with the real Toby and the actors playing the roles watching them served little narrative purpose, but was interesting and in keeping with the rebellious nature of Harvey and the subsequent attitude of his comics.  The lack of continuity in style of the film exemplifies his search for identity as well. The film is searching to figure out what it is just like Harvey. I thought it captured the comic book style of the comics very well. I enjoyed the animation that served as a transition between various retellings of the comics. I also think some of the heightened reality aspects of the comic translated well into the film because it followed the story so clearly. The perfect example of this is the sudden healing of his laryngitis. 
I do not see Harvey as a hero, really.  I think he went through a lot in his battle with cancer and I sympathize, but his survival doesn’t make him a hero.  However, I think he does do a good job of showing life in a real way while still making comedic art.  But it’s comedy in a depressing way that shows life with an appropriate lack of glamour.  

Monday, February 20, 2012

Freaks and Spurs


Tod Browning's Freaks is a film adapted from the short story "Spurs", written by Tod Robbins.  
It takes place at a circus, showing the divide between the performers and the disfigured freaks. 
The film is much more about the divide between the freaks and normal people, whereas the 
short story is about the divide between men and women. 

I believe Ivan Butler is close to the mark with his interpretation of the film.  Only one 
counterexample quickly comes to mind.  The clown and his love interest are both presented as 
good-hearted, normal people who are sympathetic to the freaks.  Otherwise, he is spot on.  The 
"beautiful" people, namely the trapeze artist and the strong man (Cleopatra and Hercules), are 
both morally foul. The communal integrity of the freaks is shown in their willingness to defend 
Hans' honor when they realize she has married him for his money and rejects their welcoming 
gestures to her.  Perhaps that is why she is turned into a chicken – because she is a coward and
now must live with the physical manifestation of such for the remainder of her life. 

I think Browning’s representation of the characters is in direct contrast to Robbins’.  For example,
he presents the love interest in a grotesque and ogre-like fashion, when she is meant to be an 
object of affection and a thing of beauty.  This is much more a reflection of her internal beauty, 
which is fairly lacking.  The dwarf, too, is presented as a romantic in the beginning, fostering 
sympathy from the reader.  In the film, he is not presented in bad light, but more as deluded - 
an attribute typically associated with a child.

All in all, both Tods represent their characters in a way that corresponds to the messages they are trying to convey.  It is a shame that doing so ruined Browning’s career. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Auggie and Paul


In 1994, Paul Auster adapted his short story "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story" into a film called Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang. The short story is told from Paul Auster's point of view as he searches for a subject for a Christmas story to be published in the New York Times. A man who works at a cigarette shop, Auggie Wren, tells him a story about pretending to be an old, blind woman's relative to make her feel better on Christmas and ultimately stealing an old fashioned camera once she fell asleep. His guilt led him to make use of the camera - he takes a picture on a certain corner at the same time each day. It is unclear whether Auggie's story is true, but for some reason, the reader wants to believe it. Auster chose to expand his original story by following many characters and culminating the film with the telling of Auggie's story, the sole subject of the short story. Auster adapted himself into the character Paul Benjamin. The film is not as attached to Paul Benjamin as the short story is to Paul Auster, and is subsequently not as self-reflexive. In other words, the short story is about writing the short story, but the film is not about making the film, or even really writing the story. The film explores the theme of reality and fiction, truth and lies much more than the short story does. Essentially, where the short story is self-reflexive, the film is thematically driven.
Many of Auster's prose tendencies, or tics are apparent in the film, both narratively and stylistically.
To begin, an instance of Auster’s fascination with coincidence readily comes to mind. The fact that one of Auggie's pictures captures Paul's deceased wife is highly coincidental. I believe his fondness for digression is much more apparent in the short story because he keeps putting off the telling of Auggie’s story, whereas the viewer is not waiting to hear the story when watching the film. However, the most clear and interesting narrative tic that is present in the film and short story is what he has called the “force of contradiction”. The fact that Auggie steals this old woman’s camera after giving her company on Christmas is in itself a contradiction and surprising. Auggie is not a thief – he seems to be of solid moral character. But why does he steal it? Or did any of it even happen at all? Clearly, the stylistic choices made at the end, specifically of the black and white scene during the credits, can be interpreted many different ways (as shown in the many different interpretations given in class). Some people viewed it as proving that it happened, while others saw it as proof that it did not. Given some time to reflect on the nature of the ending, I believe it was an interesting and accurate reflection of the end of the short story. Some viewers draw that it did in fact happen, where others are sure it did not. Recreating that feeling was not only true to the short story, but also served to tie the two pieces together narratively and thematically.