Category: American Independents

Literary critics and the cinema

A US poster – the film opens a fortnight later in the UK

It’s a while since I had a rant about film criticism. One of my bugbears is about literary critics and the way they approach cinema. In today’s Guardian Saturday Review there is a short piece by John Mullan focusing on the upcoming release of the film The Goldfinch, an adaptation of the 2013 third novel by Donna Tartt. I should state from the outset that I haven’t seen the film yet or read the book and that I have no beef with John Mullan when he writes about novels. What concerns me here is the aim behind the editorial decision to publish this piece three weeks before the film opens.

Literary adaptation is perhaps the main focus of the cultural clash between literary critics and cinephiles/film scholars. I quite understand that for many people who are readers as well as moviegoers they will often make their own judgements about whether they prefer the novel of the film, if they want to experience both and if they would prefer to experience one before the other. The problem is that in British culture the novel is seen by the arts establishment as of superior cultural value to the film. Films are often judged on their ‘fidelity’ to the source material. What this means isn’t always clear. It is generally accepted that a film can’t include all the narrative information in a long novel, even in a very long film. Fidelity then may be about retaining the ‘spirit’ of the novel, however that might be defined, or retaining the central ideas and incidents of the novel’s narrative. What is generally lacking in criticism of the film adaptation is any extensive understanding about how filmic rather than literary narratives work and how ‘film language’ (for want of a better term) is utilised to tell stories. Films and novels are different narrative forms. The novel is not necessarily superior just because it is ‘original’. Even if the adaptation draws on the literary narrative, it is also likely to draw on several other sources of meaning (for example, stars, genres, visual styles, music etc.).

Mullan begins his essay by noting that it is surprising that this is the first of Tartt’s novels to make it to the big screen. He helpfully tells us that Warner Bros. did option Tartt’s first novel The Secret History in 1992 but that for various reasons the planned production didn’t happen. Mullan also expresses surprise that The Goldfinch is the Tartt novel that did make it onto the screen and in doing so he begins to explore some of those familiar assumptions about literary adaptations. His piece is given a subhead which asks “Can the film of Donna Tartt’s Pullitzer prize-winner bring to life a novel that divided the critics?”. The novel is very long and there aren’t as many characters as in a Dickens novel so how will the filmmaker cope with creating a sustained narrative drive? IMDb gives a very long list of characters so I’m not sure what this means. Mullan describes aspects of the plot and the literary narrative (i.e. he gives us some of the events and how they are narrated). I would call these insights ‘spoilers’ – I will now have to try and forget what I’ve learned in order to come to the film without too many expectations.

My major problem though is that John Mullan tells us about Donna Tartt’s literary style and how ‘cinematic’ it is – the writing is full of visual detail and some scenes are played out as in slow-motion. He then tells us that any [film] director should relish re-creating certain key scenes and that they will have to make an audience understand the magnetism of the work of art which is the obsession of the central character (the novel is able to make us share the passion that the character has for this work of art).

Mullan does tell us that the director who finally made this film version of The Goldfinch is John Crowley, “who was responsible for the adaptation of Colm Tóbín’s dauntingly inward novel Brooklyn“. I’ve seen Brooklyn and liked it, but not having read the novel, I wasn’t concerned by its ‘dauntingly inward’ qualities. I’m not sure I even know what that phrase means. Looking back at my post on Brooklyn, I see that I suggested “this is a film about casting, costumes and locations”. In other words I honed in on the filmic qualities of the film rather than the narrative structure. I also noted that the script was actually an adaptation by Nick Hornby, a well-known novelist turned successful screenwriter. Since I hadn’t read the original novel I didn’t offer a comparison of the narratives, but if I had wanted to do that, Hornby’s role would have been important.

What is strange about John Mullan’s essay is that he doesn’t mention who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of The Goldfinch. In his final sentence he asks “will they [the filmmakers] be able to resist the sentimentality that Tartt resolutely avoids? I would bet not”. This seems like a jibe at film compared to literature. IMDb lists the screenwriter on the film as Peter Straughan, an experienced writer for film and TV who has previously adapted two best-selling novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and The Snowman (2017), both for the same director, Thomas Alfredson. My take on these was that the first was a very successful film and the second was something of a disaster. However, this distinction is suspect since I was a big fan of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 novel The Snowman but I haven’t read the le Carré novel (and I don’t necessarily always enjoy his work for various reasons). My point here is that I don’t think Mullan has any right to say that Crowley ‘must’ do this or ‘should’ do that with the adaptation and that the film’s success or failure will in any case be just as much about Straughan’s script as Crowley’s direction (and the cast and cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, the music, editing, art direction, costumes etc.).

So what was the purpose of putting Mullan’s essay into the Review at this point? If it was just a piece of promotion, an image and a caption would have sufficed. It seems to me to set up readers of the Review with a given ‘position’ from which to see the film which is based on certain assumptions about literary adaptations. It may turn out to be a film which works well or works badly but surely audiences want to be able to approach it with an open mind – or if they have read the book, their own ideas about what they are looking for in an adaptation. I have no problem with John Mullan discussing the film from his perspective after he has seen it and when it has been seen by paying audiences. He may well have some interesting points to make. In the past, before the Guardian changed the format of its Saturday Review, this did sometimes happen. Such pieces didn’t always work but at least they reflected on the film. I realise that the Review is about books rather than film and that this has become more evident since the change of format, but please Guardian editors, don’t treat literary adaptations in this way.

Support the Girls (US 2018)

The ‘girls’ at Double Whammies. Lisa (Regina Hall) is in the centre, not wearing the outfit. Next to her are Danyelle (left) and Maci (Haley Lu Richardson, right)

This screening was frustrating and disappointing, partly because the promotion material was misleading. I’d persuaded friends to watch it on the basis that it was a comedy. I sought out the film with some difficulty (it played a handful of venues locally for a couple of showings). My interest was in its lead player Regina Hall whose earlier roles in Girls Trip (US 2017) and The Hate U Give (US 2018) had impressed me. But Support the Girls isn’t a straight comedy. Some reviewers call it a comedy-drama. I think that for me it may be a form of satire. I did know that it was an ‘American independent film’ rather than a mainstream African-American film like the two titles listed above and I did recognise the name of writer-director Andrew Bujalski, but I hadn’t seen any of his previous films. I was perhaps too reliant on the bold claim in the promo trailer that this was a ‘big-hearted comedy’.

On reflection I can see that the film has merits and it’s actually quite a serious observation of a particular slice of American popular culture and importantly, the people who work to make it possible, the ‘girls’ of the title. Regina Hall’s character, Lisa, is the manager of a sports bar, a privately-owned version of bars like the national Hooters chain with the wince-inducing title of ‘Double Whammies’. The bizarre concept for the film is a bar featuring big-breasted and scantily-clad serving women that is also meant to be ‘family friendly’! It’s situated in a strip mall on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The ‘plot’ is barely visible but it begins with Lisa opening up the bar in the morning when she is already upset by something. But she is a trouper and just gets on with things. Throughout the next 24 hours she will deal with a whole range of problems, most work-related but others involving her life outside work. She deals with every challenge in the best way she can. Despite everything, Lisa loves her job and she loves her girls, most of whom return the affection but don’t necessarily understand her position. As one reviewer put it, Lisa is the archetypal ‘den mother’ and who wouldn’t want to work for a manager who backs her staff if customers misbehave and who, if she has to fire someone, will do it as humanely as possible, always trying to be ‘fair’? She inspires loyalty and regular customers like her too. Regina Hall carries off the role to perfection. But are today’s events just too much, even for Lisa?

Lisa argues her case with the owner ‘Cubby’ (James le Gros)

The concept behind the bar is difficult to understand from a UK perspective. (There is one Hooters bar, in Nottingham, I believe. It’s been open since 2010 but the chain hasn’t expanded.) UK sports bars don’t have provocatively dressed ‘waitresses’ as far as I’m aware and the focus is on the sport. I tend to avoid such bars myself but I’m sure they have female as well as male customers. The concept is odd, even in the US. Andrew Bujalski himself explains how he sees it:

You don’t see many stories set in this slice of Americana, and with good reason. It does not lend itself to grand dramatic arcs, or, really, to gut-busting comedy. But it certainly is full of contradictions, and incredibly fertile with opportunities for subtle spiritual conflicts. I couldn’t pretend to untangle these from an insider’s perspective, so I dreamed up a kind of outsider character, Lisa the general manager, to walk in there with a spirit of openness and love – and plenty of her own pathologies – to see what she might discover in there. While it is a very specific story in many ways, I hope that anyone who’s ever worked for a living will relate. Most of us have to buy/sell one crazy ‘concept’ or another to pay our bills, and some days, you’re not sure if your humor and dignity will survive to the end of the shift . . . (Press Notes Director’s Statement)

This statement suggests that Bujalski knew what he was up to and for many critics in the US he succeeded. Many see the film as celebrating the sisterhood of female workers at a time of #MeToo. The film also scored highly with the Spirituality & Practice website. As well as the simple daily grind of Lisa’s job and the endless stream of decisions in the face of new problems she has to contend with, the narrative offers two distinct critiques. One is the way in which the owner carefully subverts ideas of diversity in employment practices when he requires Lisa to ensure that there are never too many Black or Latino girls working together on the same shift. The other is a sequence in which we eavesdrop on a hiring scenario for another, similar, establishment in the same strip. The ‘Man Cave’ is a national chain (fictitious, I assume) and the woman spouting corporate guff has risen through the ranks. She speaks as if she actually believes what she says. This might have been part of a ‘mockumentary’.

I think that if the film had been promoted as a drama about working in this kind of place, I would have engaged with it differently. But there are still problems with the production, whatever the perspective. One is the poor quality of the sound recordings/presentation. I often do have difficulty following American dialogue, not so much the language or the accent, but when the sound is muddy or actors mumble or talk over each other it becomes difficult to follow the details of the plot. We all agreed this wasn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film, but all the same we did expect some kind of coherent plotline. It’s not often that a film ends when you are still trying to work out what is going on. In retrospect it all makes sense but this isn’t the kind of film which should require that kind of retrospection. As well as Regina Hall, I should also pick out Haley Lu Richardson as Maci and rapper Shayna McHayle as Danyelle, the two main employees supporting Lisa. US TV watchers will also no doubt pick out Lea DeLaria of Orange Is the Only Black as one of the regular customers, Bobo. There isn’t too much to say about the look of the film, though I did enjoy the brief montage of food preparation in the kitchen. In the end, I think this screening simply proves that I’ve lost touch with some aspects of American popular culture and filmmaking.

GFF19 #8: Alice’s Restaurant (US 1969)

Arlo and his friend Roger are arrested for ‘illegal dumping’

The free programme of archive prints at GFF this year was dedicated to a group of films that challenged traditional Hollywood in 1969 and the festival strand was entitled ‘The End of Innocence’. Alice’s Restaurant is a particulary good example of a film that fits the selection criteria and was introduced as such by the GFF co-director Allan Hunter. It’s a rarely-screened film from 1969 and we watched a digital print from Olive Films in the US.

The director of the film was Arthur Penn who alongside the other two ‘Ps’, Peckinpah and Pakula, belonged to the maverick group of 50s/60s directors who began in TV or theatre and were never really happy with the studios. Robert Altman was another and this quartet were older and possibly wiser than the Movie Brats who formed the next generation. Penn had his big success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (sharing its success with producer-star Warren Beatty) and he was in a position to make this unusual film with a reasonable budget. Hunter made two useful statements when first he told us that Arthur Penn himself had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an ‘experimental college’ with an emphasis on art and that he was therefore predisposed to make this film about the ‘counter-culture’ based around various events in the life of Arlo Guthrie and celebrated by the young folk singer in a long narrative song which appeared in 1967.

Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick) on their wedding day

Secondly, Hunter quoted Penn himself saying that his film was the most ‘authentic’ of the studio pictures attempting to capture the brief period of the counter-culture. I’m not sure if there is much competition for such a title, but certainly Penn’s film feels authentic, not least because of Arlo himself in the lead. There are others in the cast too who are non-actors, some of whom were directly connected to the original events that form the basis of the narrative. Alice and her husband Ray are played by the actors Patricia Quinn and James Broderick (and the real Alice and Ray) have small parts. Alice is the familiar ‘earth mother’ figure of the commune narrative whereas Ray is the older figure, a man around 40 who perhaps fought in Korea and is now enjoying a kind of delayed adolescence.

The Thanksgiving dinner

The film is conventional in including scenes of the clash between the young ‘long-hairs’ and the conservative townsfolk of the small Montana town where Arlo attempts to become a student to avoid the Vietnam draft and then, after his expulsion, the antics he gets up to ‘fail’ the draft board medical. By contrast the initial opening of the restaurant and the founding of an ‘alternative community’ in a de-consecrated church in Massachusetts at first goes well. The incident at the centre of the narrative when Arlo and his (real) childhood friend ‘Roger’ (Geoffrey Outlaw) illegally dump the garbage from the Thanksgiving Day party when they discover the town tip is closed now appears the oddest act in the film. No self-respecting ‘alternative’ group today would despoil the countryside with litter.

Pete Seeger playing for Woody with Arlo’s accompaniment

Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie was hospitalised with Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary and ultimately fatal nervous disease. He died in 1967. Woody is played in the film by the actor Joseph Boley but when Arlo goes to visit on one occasion he discovers Woody being serenaded by the real Pete Seeger with his banjo. I was surprised to see a couple of reviews stating this performance was out of place in the film. Pete Seeger is one of the great men of the 20th century for me and when Arlo joins him on harmonica, I found this to be the most emotional moment in the film. It was nearly matched by a later song at a funeral when Tigger Outlaw sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’. (Tigger was possibly the first wife of Geoff Outlaw according to one internet source?)

I’m not sure what I make of the film from this 2019 viewing and I can’t remember whether I saw it the first time round. The music still resonates and it stitches the narrative together in following the song lyrics. Arlo is a likeable character and Pat Quinn as Alice is very good but the more generic sequences don’t do much for me, especially the extended party scenes. The sub-plot about trying to help a heroin user carries more weight but not enough to support the narrative on its own. Perhaps what surprised me most was the importance of the motorcycle sequences, which seem to hark back to the 1950s as a ‘challenge’ to conservative America. They also create some tension with the sense of a peaceful alternative community.

Arlo during his draftboard medical with M. Emmet Walsh

The counter-culture didn’t last that long in North America, perhaps from 1967 to 1970? In the UK, despite being in London during that period, I felt the impact of the ideas about ‘alternative lifestyles’ wasn’t really evident until the later 1970s. Fortunately Harold Wilson kept the UK out of the Vietnam War, one of the few times the UK didn’t slavishly follow US foreign policy. Arlo Guthrie in one interview has stated that for him the anti-war rallies were the high point of the 1960s.

One of the other points that Allan Hunter made was again to quote Penn in saying that it was a white middle-class alternative lifestyle. I think in general that’s probably true, but there are actually African-American musicians in the film and Arlo’s girlfriend is Asian-American. I’m glad I saw the film but questions about the ‘End of Innocence’ were always more likely to be raised by the next programmed archive screening of Medium Cool.

[I haven’t included a trailer because there seem to be several free online offers of the film that you can explore.]

Vice (US 2018)

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush, photo by Matt Kennedy © Annapurna Pictures 2018

Most of the critical attention given to Vice has focused on Christian Bale’s remarkable performance as Dick Cheney in this biopic, of sorts, about the American politician. It is an extraordinary performance, not least in dealing with all the prostheses and make-up necessary to represent the older Cheney. Equal praise should go to Amy Adams, also unrecognisable in her depiction of Cheney’s life partner Lynne. But I think the real questions to ask about this film are to do with its purpose. As I used to suggest to media students, the best starting place is to discuss the purpose of a media text and also to examine who made it.

I should point out that I watched this film with a group of friends on a social night out (screening and meal) and it wouldn’t have been my choice, but I went along with a group decision. I therefore watched the film with a slight prejudice and the knowledge that I have mainly avoided films about US politicians and especially about Republican politicians. But here I’ll try to be objective. This film, written and directed by Adam McKay focuses on Dick Cheney’s rise to become arguably the most powerful Vice President in US history during the two George W. Bush administrations from 2001-9. It begins with a brief look at Cheney as a student thrown out by Yale and then given a dressing down by Lynne before a recovery at the University of Wyoming and an eventual internship in Washington DC. Cheney’s starts a political career during the 1968 Nixon presidency.

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld who inspires Cheney when addressing interns in 1968

Is this meant to be ‘entertainment’ or is it first and foremost a political satire aiming to expose Cheney’s shenanigans? I guess that many audiences (apart from die-hard Republicans) will find it entertaining. I did laugh, but mainly ironically at the acute analysis. Mackay adopts an approach utilising a range of devices which arguably ‘distance’ us from the realism of events. There are some surreal moments of editing, there is a character who talks to camera and there are some bravura casting decisions which I took to be deliberate exaggerations. The comic actor Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell gives a performance as George W. Bush, both of which seem broad satire to me. There are some animated characters plus the use of archive footage and there are other ‘whacky’ devices that I won’t describe so as not to spoil your possible enjoyment. But do all of these devices and the coherent satire of monsters like Dick and Lynne add up to a politically challenging exposé? I’m genuinely not sure.

Political satire has become a difficult business. The film opens with a statement along the lines of “This is all true, or as true as is possible in discussing someone as secretive as Dick Cheney. We did our fucking best!” And that seems a reasonable statement. But when you consider that Cheney is not in prison and that he still has the millions he ‘earned’ as a result of Halliburton’s commercial interest in the post-invasion clear-up in Iraq – and that Donald Trump is still the current President despite all the charges against him –  the reality of American political life seems beyond satire.

I will admit that I learned things about the foundation of Fox News and the de-regulation of American broadcasting that I didn’t know and I should have known and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps there is an argument that the film is ‘educational’? When it comes to who made it, the film appears to be a Hollywood ‘art film’ production as an ‘independent film’ that cost $60 million according to IMDb. I wonder if the huge budget for an ‘independent’ undermines the credibility of the film? Personally, I found the casting of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and the bizarre presence of Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon academic and politician, each fitted in with the satire but also drew attention away from the exposé. I realise that I’m probably guilty of criticising this film for things that I would find acceptable in other, non-American, films, but that’s my problem with American politics.

The remarkable performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams are at the centre of the film. Only the eyes tell me this is Bale?

Perhaps the main problem with Vice is that in trying to cover such a long period of American politics (and aspects of Cheney’s personal life) it’s inevitable that some issues are left out or dealt with in a perfunctory way. That is in its own way quite proper when the major issues need more time.

I know audiences will have enjoyed the film. I wonder what they will take away from it beyond the laughs and the performances of Bale and Adams? In North America audiences are holding up after 8 weeks on release but I think the film will need to do well in the international market to at least cover its costs if that budget estimate is correct. So far, it is doing well in many territories. What I don’t know is whether the audience in the US is only the ‘libtards’ (a term used in the film) or whether audiences outside the US are thinking ‘OMG!’ or laughing nervously at the thought that someone like Cheney could discover ways of gaining so much power. Seeing an archive clip of Tony Blair supporting the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq is possibly the worst moment in the film for many of us Brits.