Wednesday, January 07, 2004

I saw three films over the holidays &, as it happened, all three – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King; Cold Mountain; & House of Sand & Fog – were adaptations of novels, only the first of which I’d read (and that some three dozen years ago). But I felt an unease especially with House that made me stop & wonder at the problems of narrative & the relationship between narrative & the form of the novel, cinema & poetry.


I’ve written here before that I see cinema has having drained many of the formal prerogatives of narrative away from the novel, much as the novel itself a few hundred years ago drew narrative away from poetry, a process through which both genres gained immeasurably. More problematic, I’ve felt, is the future of the novel once narrative became merely a “nice-to-have” element, rather than its reason for existence – a point that I see as having been reached with Joyce’s Ulysses on the one hand, and the rise of the first generation of great directors, the likes of Eisenstein & Griffith.


House wants to be a tragedy – almost a Greek one at that – and at the same time a character study in which all the doomed figures are sympathetic even as they move inexorably toward an unavoidable conclusion. This works in good part because three of the lead players are superb – Ben Kingsley gives what is easily an “Oscar-caliber” performance his portrayal of an exiled Irani colonel trying to get an economic toehold in a fictionalized San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. Jennifer Connelly, fresh of her Oscar & Golden Globe performance in A Beautiful Mind, is superb in a more difficult role of a young woman almost paralyzed by depression, torn between her sense of doing right & doing what comes easily. Shohreh Aghdashloo, herself an Iranian actress living in exile in the U.K., easily handles the difficult task of balancing the screen between these two intense performances. The one clunker in the cast – you can tell that the director has no insight into the role – is Ron Eldard as an out-of-control cop, who thinks he’s being a social worker when he’s mostly being a (sexual & other) predator.


The plot, such as it is, is that the young woman’s husband has left her & she has responded with a deep depression – the house is a mess, mail is unopened, etc. – which leads to her defaulting on $500 worth of taxes that she, in reality, doesn’t even owe, for which “Pacific County” then evicts her & sells the property, a three-bedroom house walking distance from the ocean, for some $45,000. The Iranian family buys the property while the woman is attempting to appeal this & has construction done immediately in hopes of turning it around for a quick profit that will then enable them to live more comfortably, and just maybe pay for the son’s college education.


Disregard for a moment that there are enough gaps in administrative due procedure & simple bureaucratic process to drive a semi through, the narrative problem for the film is not that the evicted woman becomes romantically involved with the cop who serves the eviction papers – he’s clearly using the affair as a means of instigating the blow-up of an emotionally dead marriage – it’s that, as a police officer, he has to carry a gun. All of this drama proceeds as if waiting for a gun to go off – and once one does (I won’t say who fires at whom) – everything comes to its inescapable conclusion. It’s as if gunpowder was the verb in this film’s syntax. And while, narratively, it “resolves” everything, it does so by short-circuiting the actual human processes already in motion, replacing them instantly with another layer that isn’t half so interesting. This is, of course, the cheapest Hollywood formula: people are in conflict + a gun goes off = game over. My own sense, from all the various interviews & reviews I’ve seen, is that first-time director Vadim Perelman & first-time screenwriter Shawn Lawrence Otto (“he initially wanted to write novels,” says the film’s official website of Otto, a one-time editor of a Shakespeare journal) have been faithful to the novel of Andre Dubus III, but it makes me what to take somebody by the shoulders – Dubus? – and shake them up & down. Why didn’t you think harder?


One could make much the same charge at Cold Mountain – again I hadn’t read the book & didn’t see the conclusion coming until my wife – who had read it – whispered in my ear “This is where I’m bailing,” and headed out of the theater five minutes ahead of the dénouement. But at least this is a film about the Civil War & about war in general (director Anthony Minghella is opposed). And its characters are much more two-dimensional than those in House – Renée Zellweger uses the occasion to good comic effect, since it’s impossible to overact opposite a stick figure like Nicole Kidman. Kvetching about guns in Cold Mountain would be silly, like worrying about the problems of What-To-Do-Next for any surviving Orcs in The Ring (no mention here of a brief occupation of Mordor or of a quick return to an indigenous regime). But in House, the characters are the issue & a short-cut solution isn’t any resolution at all.


Let’s assume for a moment, then, that the gun goes off as well in Dubus’ book. What does that tell me? That it was written to be made into a motion picture? (Maybe – it’s actually a fate that relatively few novels ever meet.) Or that Dubus as well as Perelman took a short cut right at the most important juncture in the story? I’ll have to read the book to find out.* But it reminds me of the way in which mysteries in particular mime the narrative process as both hero and reader get to discover the predicate: whodunit. One reason that genre fiction has survived more effectively than, say, novels that seek to explore literary values is that such genres have other social reasons for being, sci-fi especially, where the minute that narrative & literary value are uncoupled in fiction, fiction struggles for a good reason to survive. Indeed, much of what has been published over the years by the likes of the Fiction Collection or the Dalkey Archive is fiction that is nostalgic for the novel, and which stretches out different aspects – some better, some worse – as it seeks in vain to find out its way out of the checkmate that cinema has become for narrative-as-plot.


I like a good story as much as the next bloke, but it seems to me no accident that my favorite novels over the past 50 years – Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net – are almost all narratives that “go nowhere,” & which would be unrepresentable in film (as, I would argue, David Cronenberg, proved when he “made” Naked Lunch). And the problems with films like House of Sand & Fog is that, the minute they take short cuts because, narratively, they have “somewhere” to get, the social contract with this viewer has been broken.





* Not really – by the time I’m done reading Guermantes Way, I won’t even remember the problem, only the luminous acting of Kingsley, Connelly and Aghdashloo.