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.
Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.
Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.
Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.
The short UK trailer:
The Sisters Brothers has been declared to have ‘bombed’ in the US because box office takings have been only a fraction of what might have been spent by American independent distributor Annapurna on screening rights. The box office results have been better in Europe. But I suspect in a few years time the film will start to receive a lot more interest from cinephiles. I like and admire Jacques Audiard’s work and that admiration is carried over to this his first English language film. But Audiard is not the only auteur involved. John C. Reilly bought the rights to the novel by Patrick DeWitt close to its publication date in 2011 and he is credited as one of the producers. The adaptation was by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain who collaborated with Audiard on his previous three films and who directed John C. Reilly in Les cowboys (France 2015).
The ‘Sisters Brothers’ are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of hired guns who work as assassins for ‘The Commodore’ (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon Territory in 1851. This is the time of the Gold Rush in California and finds were made near Jacksonville in Oregon Territory. The Brothers are given the task of finding and assassinating Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is being followed by a detective also employed by The Commodore, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two brothers are quite different. Charlie is the younger, but he acts as the leader and is much more aggressive. Eli is more philosophical and reflective – although he still kills efficiently when he needs to. The journey they take south towards California and what happens when they find Morris and Warm gives the narrative plenty of time to fill out the characters.
My feeling about the film, which I very much enjoyed, is that it resembles several other ‘literary’ Westerns such as The Missouri Breaks (US 1976) from the novel by Thomas McGuane or, more recently, The Homesman (France-US 2014) from the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Both these films were also relatively big-budget films that flopped and both had ‘name’ directors and stars, Arthur Penn with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando for the first and Tommy Lee Jones as both director and star (with Hilary Swank) in the second. The Homesman is also an ‘international production set in the same time period as The Sisters Brothers.
There is a featured review of The Sisters Brothers by Nick Pinkerton in Sight and Sound (May 2019) in which he refers to the film as having an unusual setting in the pre-Civil War era. The review makes some interesting points but I think that Pinkerton hasn’t seen enough Westerns – there are enough pre-1861 Westerns to form a separate classification and the pre-war period includes both the Gold Rush and the migrations via wagon trains to Oregon before the coming of the transcontinental railroads. The opening up of Oregon was remarkably fast-paced over the first few decades of the 19th century, moving from a territory of fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay company through British and American claims to sovereignty and the subsequent formation of the ‘Oregon Territory’ in 1848 south of the 49th Parallel and admission as a new state of the Union in 1859. There were periods of lawlessness as jurisdictions changed and the pace of development is neatly represented by the surprise for both the educated Morris and Eli when they find themselves both brushing their teeth with toothbrushes and tooth powder. But this is a very male early Oregon community. Women are usually bar girls. Wives and mothers are not very visible.
One of the criticisms of the film is the dialogue which includes some modern speech which seems anachronistic. But it also includes some literary language, especially when Morris is writing his diary. Eli too uses some formal language which Charlie derides, but the most articulate character is Warm, who has big plans, first for gold extraction and then for a new utopian society he wants to set up in Texas. There was a real attempt by democratic socialists from France, Belgium and Switzerland to set up a community known as ‘La Réunion’ in Dallas County in 1855 based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. (Fourier called the building in which a small community might live a phalanstère.) The American writer Henry David Thoreau is also mentioned in the script, although as Pinkerton points out Thoreau’s best known work, Walden, was not published until 1854. However, he had published earlier papers and the script suggests that Warm is not just formally educated like Morris, but also much more aware of new ideas. I did notice the language ‘mix’ and I’m still not quite sure how to read it – but I don’t see it as a ‘mistake’.
Against this minutiae of American life, the film offers us the landscapes of Spain and Romania, because this is very much a European production from Why Not Productions in France as the lead company. It includes scenes shot in Almería in Andalusia (like all the classic European Westerns) as well as mountain scenes in Navarre and Aragon and other landscapes and studio sets in Romania. There is a tradition of pitting history against myth in European Westerns and this film continues that process. This doesn’t make The Sisters Brothers a ‘realist film’, but it does suggest an intelligence ‘playing’ with Western conventions and historical discourses. The problem is that audience expectations are perhaps for clearer narrative drives and for a rousing climax and resolution (see this typical US review). I’m not in the spoilers game, but there is a relatively downbeat ending. There are at least three big shootouts but the emphasis is on the characters. I’m not sure that the balance between ‘action’ and ‘talk’ is actually that different from the majority of Western films. It’s more a case of what the ‘talk’ is about. I found the talk very interesting and enjoyable and I’d be happy to watch the film again.
The casting of Riz Ahmed, a fine actor, worked for me. I was reminded of another very good and unusual Western, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Set in roughly the same mid-19th century period and again in a mining camp, the central character, a woman trying to ‘pass’ as a man, meets an Englishman played by Ian McKellan sporting his own ‘real’ Lancashire accent. The film also features the Chinese migrant community. Another British connection is to Michael Winterbottom’s wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Again associated with the ‘mining Western’ this is set slightly later in the 1860s when the railroad is coming, but the ‘back story’ is the 1849 Gold Rush. This film too has its migrant characters. I think I need to watch both these other films again! Riz Ahmed’s character is, I think, meant to be a European migrant and his character’s name suggests German/Belgian/Dutch? (But his middle name ‘Kermit’ seems to be American- and possibly anachronistic).
We watched the film on the big screen in Pictureville at the Museum in Bradford. I thought Alexandre Desplat’s score worked well and Benoît Debie’s cinematography is equally impressive. All the performances are good but it’s clear that John C. Reilly is the most invested in the project he started. Nick didn’t like the film and perhaps he’ll add a comment as to why not. I’ve really enjoyed researching the film and if you like Westerns I’d say this is a ‘must see’ – unless the issues I’ve described above are ones you know will be a problem for you. The trailer below doesn’t give out as many spoilers as the usual Hollywood trailer, but I don’t remember anything like the song in it appearing in the film.
This completed my trio of films from the ‘End of Innocence’ strand of archive Hollywood films at the festival. Allan Hunter had his largest and most appreciative audience yet for his introduction. He made a strong argument that Midnight Cowboy marked a fundamental change in Hollywood, a ‘passing of the baton’ from one generation to another – at least in terms of stars. He reminded us that this was the first ‘X’ film to win Best Picture Oscar and he told us an anecdote about how Jon Voight, backstage at the Oscars to collect the Best Director Oscar on behalf of John Schlesinger, was congratulated by Fred Astaire. I’m amazed that the film still had an ’18’ certificate in the UK when the bbfc certified the most recent video copy in 2007. I don’t really understand why it was an ‘X’ in the first place. Hunter argued that Schlesinger was only half ‘out’ as gay at the time (but his next film Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971 features the bisexual young man played by Murray Head who is the lover of both Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch). Midnight Cowboy has a distinct homo-erotic subtext, but the original novel was more clearly the work of a gay writer. I’ve read that the issue in the US was the oral sex scene in the film. I guess we are more used to such scenes now but it must have been ‘shocking’ at the time.
If you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, the narrative sees a a young man from Texas dreaming of a better life in New York. It certainly has been a difficult life so far for Joe Buck (Jon Voight), currently washing dishes in a greasy spoon café. Having saved for new cowboy boots he sets out on a long-distance bus believing New York and ‘rich ladies’ in particular, are waiting for a handsome cowboy stud like Joe. Inevitably he is the naïve rube in the city and is quickly reduced to hustling – which leads him to meet Ritso or ‘Ratso’ (Dustin Hoffman). The pair become an odd couple who attempt to survive a New York winter and then to head for Florida and warmth with tragic results.
Allan Hunter’s definition of ‘New Hollywood’ is based on slightly different ideas than mine I think. Whereas both Alice’s Restaurant and Medium Cool were, in their different ways, offering something new and in the rest of the strand Easy Rider certainly shook up the industry, I think most of the other selections were mainstream films made in the classical manner. True, Voight and Hoffman, when they made Midnight Cowboy, were not yet Hollywood stars and Hunter told us that Schlesinger was able to film them on the street without turning heads. And in the sense that this was a film without established stars it was certainly a surprise that it won so many awards. I’m not arguing that it didn’t deserve them. It still comes across as a very well-made and enjoyable film and I was surprised how much I remembered from it. It also has the benefit of the Nilsson song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ as part of a memorable soundtrack and the little bits of ‘business’, concocted by Hoffman in particular, still work. On the other hand, Schlesinger was already the director of four major UK films, one of which, Darling, won 3 Oscars in 1965. He would go to make four more major pictures in the 1970s but all were mainstream features. The film was also a literary adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s novel which first appeared in 1965. Herlihy had also written plays and an earlier novel All Fall Down (1960) that became a 1962 film for John Frankenheimer. Herlihy, like Schlesinger was a man of the 1950s and 1960s and not part of the New Hollywood as such. His Wikipedia entry states that he attended Black Mountain College, where Arthur Penn had once studied and later he would appear as an actor in one of Penn’s late films, Four Friends 1981.
But does Midnight Cowboy fit the ‘End of Innocence’? I’m not convinced. Most of the attempts to categorise the changes in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, as the studios declined and the brief interregnum when some offbeat and ‘counter-culture’ influenced films got into mainstream distribution in the 1970s, are problematic. There are no simple cut-off points or starting points. No single film marked the boundary. I would argue that Hollywood changed over a ten-year period from the mid sixties to the mid 70s. Hollywood shrank, most films got smaller. Directors became more important but then films got bigger again and they were sold to audiences more efficiently again. Perhaps the only boundaries are those associated with the so-called ‘Movie Brats’. Francis Ford Coppola made his first mainstream feature You’re a Big Boy Now in 1966 and Stephen Spielberg directed Jaws, one of the first films to have a major national marketing campaign and a wide release building across the summer in 1975. Midnight Cowboy is just one of a number of enjoyable and interesting films that came out in that ten-year period. It could also be approached as a ‘buddy movie’, a film about two men which became a genre staple around this time.
The print we watched was a DCP from Park Circus. GFT1 is listed as 2K digital projection.