Moby Dick

And some certain significance lurks in all things

I recently had a chance to visit Herman Melville’s Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA, where Melville lived for a good portion of his life and also where he wrote Moby-Dick (or The Whale), a novel central to the American canon and which few modern readers seem to be able to plow through.  During the tour of Arrowhead, our group was allowed entry into Melville’s study, which gazes out upon the whalelike Mount Greylock and wherein rest plenty of items from his novelist days, including his impossibly tiny bifocals and the chair he sat in while writing Moby-Dick.  As the hammy, college-aged tour guide sifted through his required talking points, I shut my eyes and tried to absorb everything in the room, the essence of Melville himself, even imagining a conversation between myself and the author.  I cannot remember exactly what we chatted about.

The newest attempt to capture the novel in film form is the non-hyphenated Moby Dick, a film split into two parts as a television miniseries.  The screenplay is adapted by English playwright Nigel Williams, who was Emmy-nominated for his similar treatment of Elizabeth I.  The film stars Charlie Cox (of Stardust and Boardwalk Empire fame) as Ishmael, the protagonist and narrator, who in the novel is a social outcast, former schoolteacher, and something of a philosopher, who goes to sea due to an unbearable feeling of alienation from human society.  Williams’ screenplay portrays Ishmael as an idealistic adventurer whose past is never really explored, and seeks employment on a whaling ship for the sake of seeing the world.  Ahab, an unplayable role as Herman Melville originally wrote it (and mistakenly billed as the “lead” in every film version), is taken up here by William Hurt, who portrays the monomaniacal captain in the way we might think of crazy people today, not so much in the 1840’s (and Ahab was anything but a typical “crazy person”).  Ethan Hawke, who has plenty of experience with period pieces, plays Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate, for all intents and purposes the deuteragonist of the story, and the only crew member who stands against Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of the White Whale from the very beginning (and who also happened to have an overpriced coffee chain/hipster hangout inexplicably named after him).  Eddie Marsan appears as Stubb, the second mate, whose patter-like, Shakespearean passages decorate the novel, but who appears as something of a generic, brutish sailor in the film; his happy-go-lucky personality is nowhere to be seen.  Raoul Trujillo fills out the main cast as Queequeg, a cannibal from the fictional South Seas island of Kokovoko, who becomes Ishmael’s best friend early in the story.  The iconic scene in which Ishmael watches Queequeg’s religious ritual from under the covers of the hotel bed is preserved in this film, albeit a bit rushed.

The story, of course, follows Ishmael as he ships onboard the Pequod (out of Nantucket) in order to learn the honorable whaling trade while simultaneously escaping the pressures of his shore life.  The journey is to last three years, and after he befriends Queequeg at a New Bedford inn, the duo board the vessel together.  As they make their way to the ship and sign their names on the roster, they are repeatedly hassled by a beggar named Elijah (played in the film by Billy Boyd), who hints at difficult times to come on the Pequod.  After Ishmael relates the terms of his contract, Elijah asks, “Anything down there about your souls?…Oh, perhaps you hav’n’t got any…No matter though, I know many chaps that hav’n’t got any — good luck to ’em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”  Once onboard, Ishmael meets the crew, including Starbuck, Stubb, and third mate Flask (Matthew Lemche), along with the other harpooneers, Daggoo (Onyekachi Ejim), a towering African man, and Tashtego (Billy Merasty), a Wampanoag tribesman from Massachusetts.  Queequeg serves as the harpooneer on Starbuck’s boat (changed to Stubb’s in the film) while Ishmael serves as an oarsman for the same (in the film, he doubles as watch onboard the ship).  When Captain Ahab finally shows himself, he reveals his true purpose: not simply to hunt whales for oil and profit, but to hunt down Moby Dick, a nearly pure white sperm whale, who took Ahab’s leg during his most recent voyage.  Ahab is bent on revenge on the animal, which he anthropomorphizes as being ruthless and evil, and nails a gold doubloon (a Spanish sixteen-dollar piece) to one of the ship’s masts as incentive to any sailor who can “raise” Moby Dick.  Everyone onboard is taken by Ahab’s charisma and desire for the doubloon, and much of the novel explores human nature through individual characters’ ruminations on the doubloon, on Ahab’s madness, and on Moby Dick himself: what he ultimately symbolizes (whiteness, fate, the ocean, nature, God, the universe) remains utterly inscrutable even in the end, and lengthy chapters are devoted to Ishmael’s (and others’) philosophical musings.

The film, though, while focusing more on the human drama than the action, takes a decidedly realistic approach and does away with most of the mysticism (which, while providing an emotional experience with well-performed characters, does not tell the same story).  The most jarring changes occur near the beginning: the opening of the film features Ishmael rescuing Pip (Daniel Gordon), a young black boy, from a beating, and taking him along to Nantucket to find his own way.  In the novel, Ishmael does not meet Pip until encountering him as the cabin boy onboard the Pequod (and Pip’s later experience stranded in the ocean before Ishmael rescues him is vital to the story’s careful foreshadowing, and even Ishmael realizes this in the text).  The rescue scene works for the drama the film seeks to employ, simultaneously providing action and characterization (Ishmael’s compulsion to save a complete stranger indicates a strong moral compass) and also earns the line “Call me Ishmael,” the book’s opening line and one of the most recognized openings in Western literature.  Second, a new character is added: Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson), the wife of Ahab, who worries about her husband’s quest (though she doesn’t seem to know his ulterior motives) and entrusts Starbuck to protect him.  Additionally, while speaking to Elijah, she receives a much more pointed prophecy than Ishmael ever did: “[Ahab] will die, and he knows it.”  This reminds me of the 1956 Gregory Peck version, in which Elijah related that everyone on the voyage would die save one sailor.  Do modern filmmakers understand the difference between foreshadowing and simply telling the audience what’s going to happen?

In the novel, Ahab’s wife is only briefly mentioned near the end of the book (called a “girl-wife,” much younger than Ahab) when he acknowledges that he has not been a satisfactory husband to her, even going as far as calling her a widow, as he spends all of his time at sea.  The third major alteration is the omission of the character Fedallah – in the original story, Fedallah is a Persian harpooneer who is smuggled onboard the Pequod in Ahab’s personal cabin along with a Persian boat crew and assigned to Ahab’s boat.  As hinted by Ishmael seeing “dark figures” sneaking onto the ship in Nantucket, as well as the crew’s thoughts about Fedallah’s sinister influence upon Ahab, it is hinted that Fedallah may be the devil in disguise (this is very likely just the crew’s superstition, however).  Fedallah tells Ahab he can only die once he sees a hearse made of American wood floating in the sea, a prophecy given by Boyd’s Elijah in the film.  I understand the omission for the sake of time as well as the current Western stigma about “people in turbans,” but I think it’s worth noting that another scene is added, during which Steelkilt (James Gilbert) refuses to climb the mast with a black man (Daggoo), and Stubb reprimands him for being so weak-minded.  This scene, which seems straight out of a Mark Twain novel (and leads to a contrived side-conflict between the two white sailors), illustrates how comfy we are with portrayals of white-on-black racism in films meant to portray Old Times.  “How quaint,” we seem to think, but racist attitudes are still largely present the media, and a big part of the reason is that we just won’t stop talking about it.

To the film’s detriment is the overuse of low-quality CG.  Moby Dick himself only appears at the very end of the novel (in three short chapters), and in the film we get the sense that he’s nearby the Pequod throughout the entire film, almost stalking the crew in a way, while the novel makes a very large point of driving in the fact (especially at the end) that Moby Dick is only a whale, a dumb animal who, while aggressive and dangerous, does not purposefully hunt humans; he actually runs away when the Pequod attacks, and destroys so many whaling vessels and sailors only because they’re trying to kill him.  Recall Starbuck’s famous line:

“Moby Dick seeks thee not!  It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (Melville, ch. 135)

The film explores these ideas, but due to the constant appearances of the Whale and some choices during the climactic battle, director Mike Barker’s intentions are not quite clear.  This presents a bit of a problem: who is right, Ahab or Starbuck?  We get the sense that Ahab is still insane and the lesson (at least the one about anthropomorphism) still applies here.  Consider the following passage from the novel, in which Ishmael delves beautifully into what he thinks Ahab’s reasons might be for his relentless pursuit of Moby Dick, and then tell me whether you think this translates onto William Hurt’s somewhat dubious portrayal of the mad sea captain:

“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (Melville, ch. 41)

The filmmakers do a nice job of inserting Ishmael into the action.  In the novel, he serves largely as a narrator and not much of a participant after he boards the Pequod, but as a character in a movie, he gets himself into plenty of trouble.  The screenwriters choose to have Ahab take Ishmael under his wing as a protege’, and his role in the action, particularly in the second half of the miniseries, takes precedent over his relationships with Pip and Queequeg (though the story of Queequeg’s illness and the building of the coffin/life-buoy is wonderfully done).

This film feels good.  It’s an epic adventure in the tradition of older movies, and staging a three-hour production almost entirely onboard the same ship is a monstrous task, which the entire production team handles very well here (and on a comparatively modest budget).  The sailors even sing real-life chantey songs while carrying out the ship’s brutal work.  I think, though, that there must be another Moby Dick adaptation in the future, one that attempts to capture not only the characters and story, but the all-but-extinct metaphoric narrative that Melville so masterfully crafted.

Moby Dick (2011); written by Nigel Williams; adapted from the novel by Herman Melville; directed by Mike Barker; starring Charlie Cox, William Hurt, and Ethan Hawke.

Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.

The Dark Knight Rises

Death by exile

Since this may be my last chance, I’d like to examine just a few of the logical missteps in Batman’s modus operandi, many of which were suggested to me by a friend during the car ride to see The Dark Knight Rises: Batman and other masked vigilantes cannot legally arrest anyone.  Without admissible evidence, any villain kidnapped by Batman and left on the stoop of the police department is free to get up and catch a cab home.  Adding the fact that vigilantism is largely illegal, “the Batman” (i.e. a nocturnal maniac in an elaborate costume who beats the tar out of people unprovoked) cannot present himself as a witness without revealing his identity.  The absolute only way Batman would be able to stop crime would be to murder every criminal he came across, curbing his “no killing” rule.  Even if Bruce Wayne were to come forth as witness to a crime or offer open help to the police, he has an endless assemblage of illegal tech in and below his house (including military-grade tanks).  If Christopher Nolan’s Gotham were a real place, rest assured, Batman would be spending plenty more time in his cave than anywhere else.

The final film in the Batman Begins series is an effective ending to the trilogy and the most character-centric film Nolan has done, albeit with more than a few failures.  On the upside, Batman himself appears for maybe ten minutes of total screen time, while his alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) deals with some personal trials after an eight year absence from crime-fighting.  The film focuses on these trials along with the exploits of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar who arranges to steal Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for the elimination of her criminal record.  The film’s deuteragonist, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) climbs the ladder of the Gotham police force and takes on a role very similar to that of Robin, the sidekick of Batman, a non-coincidence that provides some good payoff in one of the film’s final scenes.  The other major players are Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a cult-like following bent on purifying Gotham through its destruction, and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a determined businesswoman with lots of money and a nebulous agenda.

I’ve discussed Christopher Nolan’s writing problems in the past (see Inception), and although The Dark Knight Rises possesses a more emotional foothold than its predecessors, plenty of fundamental issues are still present, namely when it comes to female characters.  Women get a better deal here (which isn’t saying much, considering Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fate in The Dark Knight): Hathaway’s character gets plenty to do in the way of action, and more importantly, has some personal motivation for getting involved in Gotham’s criminal underbelly.  Cotillard’s character is an important business mogul with serious ideas for a billion-dollar company, but once the action starts, she becomes a damsel in distress, and later, when her true identity is revealed, she satisfies that Generation Nolan film convention in which women with goals must use sex to achieve them and/or be deceptive and snakelike (see also George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Both women harbor romantic feelings for Wayne, and like Nolan’s two female characters in Inception, these two serve as disparate romance options for the male lead.  They revolve around the guy, and if he didn’t need them, they wouldn’t exist.  Additionally, while Hathaway tries to play against type and be a self-motivated character, these contrived feelings for Batman (not to mention the sexy catsuit and high heels she’s required to prance around in) subvert what is otherwise a valiant effort.  Selina gets a sidekick, Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), commonly known as one of the first openly gay characters in comic books, but Temple is criminally underused while time is wasted on individual male cops and criminals who have no real bearing on the story’s events, including Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, who has appeared in all three films), in a mock courtroom side-story that is never actually resolved.

There are also some interesting “buzz word” moments that I think are worth examining.  Bane’s takeover of Gotham is described by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) as an “occupation,” and Bane proceeds to dismantle the power structures of the city (which includes driving the entire police force into hiding) while claiming that he’s placing the power in the hands of the people; the word people is spoken very deliberately, like a taunt.  The city’s single court room is now run by a mob of cretins, and pyramids of books and papers are scattered and piled everywhere.  Every defendant is killed in a barbaric, Hun-like manner, regardless of guilt.  It seems that when the “people” obtain power and there are no billionaires or police to save us from ourselves, the system falls apart and the doors to the Dark Ages are reopened.  Nolan has already responded to this commentary, claiming that the film is “obviously not” a criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but if it was obvious, viewers would not be making these claims based upon evidence gathered from the film.  You cannot create a story with the intent of having it interpreted; no matter what “side” you’re on, Nolan’s film glorifies the police and reinforces the necessity of the wealthy while trodding on free will and treating ordinary people like commoners.  Wayne’s ascent from a gargantuan (and apparently unsupervised) prison tower among the burbling chants of other prisoners (who all happen to be trained baritones) evokes a sort of religious vibe, satisfying the Rises part of the title while making one wonder what Batman himself thinks of the people – he’s a wealthy man who unconditionally aids the police, but he’s adamant about ensuring that Gotham’s savior “could be anyone.”

Among the leaps in logic is Bane’s (and his boss’s) ultimate plan: destroy Gotham as per the wishes of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), who was defeated in the first film.  Considering how petty their goals are (right up there with Hans Gruber), why are Bane’s thugs so devoted and ready to die for the cause?  The film’s opening brings on this question when a henchman happily goes down with a doomed aircraft simply because Bane asks him to (this scene also features Aiden Gillen as a cocky CIA agent with a pompadour haircut, illustrating the underuse of great TV actors in films).  How do the thugs plant bombs of incredible power beneath massive suspension bridges without anyone (particularly boaters) noticing?  What’s the point of isolating Gotham into a medieval city-state if you’re going to blow it up anyway?  How many movies are going to make use of the trigger-button MacGuffin before filmmakers realize it no longer provides any real tension or drama?

The film effectively book-ends the Batman saga despite the numerous hair-pulling moments, and the statuses of the film’s main characters (not to mention the Batcave) make for a surprisingly pleasing conclusion (with no cliffhangers or silly post-credits scenes).  For full enjoyment, however, please blacken your third eye.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012); written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Tom Hardy.

The Lie

It’s a soul-crusher

I once gave a lecture on T.C. Boyle’s selected work, noticing various patterns in sentence structures and descriptions – namely that Boyle employs techniques intended to dazzle or surprise the reader.  One of his newest short stories, “The Lie,” goes against the grain and harkens back to stories such as “Without A Hero,” in which an unsympathetic (if not altogether loathsome) male protagonist wallows in his failures and allows them to color everything in his life, most notably his personal relationships; these stories, when compared to spectacles such as “The Human Fly” (in which a Hungarian daredevil straps himself to the wing of an airplane) or “Big Game” (wherein an anthropomorphic elephant battles yuppies in an African game ranch located in Bakersfield, California), seem almost underwritten, and their character/dialogue-centric narratives lend themselves well to something we can’t seem to get enough of – movies based on books.  Director Joshua Leonard seems to agree, having adapted “The Lie” into a recent feature film, an official selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Setting aside my feelings about literature being watered down to passive media, I am expressly skeptical about films adapted from short stories.  How do you remain “faithful” to a text that can be read multiple times in a half hour while converting it into a ninety-minute visual experience?  My favorite example is 1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the better James Bond films, adapted from an Ian Fleming story in which Bond decides against executing a spy because he develops a soft spot for her.  The film version covers these events in about fifteen minutes, then launches into an action film: three major villains emerge, there’s a KGB conspiracy, and Bond cultivates a romance with the woman (played by Maryam d’Abo).  When my mother called and told me, “The program guide says there’s a new movie based on a T.C. Boyle story,” the very thought prompted a familiar tang of the heartbreak Timothy Dalton induced in me all those years ago.

Boyle’s story is narrated by Lonnie, a married twenty-six year-old father with a dead-end video editing job.  One day, he wakes up and decides, after watching his wife, Clover, a law student, complete her morning routine in an old Cramps t-shirt for the thousandth day in a row, that he will take the day off.  Radko, Lonnie’s tyrannical Slavic boss, knows what’s coming.  “Let me guess?  You’re sick?”  Having a bad reputation for taking time off and no sick days left, Lonnie claims that his baby has a terrible fever and that the family is at the hospital.  After enjoying the day, which most notably includes a homemade dinner and quality time with Clover, Lonnie repeats this process the following morning, except this time he panics and says the baby has died.  Clover, thinking of changing her name, in part because she isn’t “who she used to be” and partly to push Lonnie to the edge, knows nothing about the lie.  Lonnie accomplishes shockingly little during his days off, but when he returns to work, his coworkers have put together some money for his family.  Once Clover discovers his deception and the money, she confronts Lonnie, who decides to walk out the door rather than explain himself.

Joshua Leonard’s film version stars himself as Lonnie, along with Jess Weixler (of Teeth fame) as Clover, who has a much larger and more sympathetic role to play in the film.  Where Boyle’s Clover appears as a sort of mannequin with no described features and an inexplicable habit of instigating fights, Weixler’s Clover is on her husband’s side, loves him, and is understandably stressed about juggling work, school, and motherhood.  The couple is portrayed as nature-friendly, laid back, and a bit hippie-ish, whereas the text only hints at their pasts (Lonnie was once in a band and loved to snowboard, and Clover’s parents were hippies).  Here, their personalities are on the table, we can see the view from both sides, and Lonnie’s lie is fueled by far more than laziness – his extra time with Clover is an opportunity to, as he says, “press the reset button.”

Even in the film’s early scenes, it’s evident that the filmmakers have closely read the source material.  Even Clover’s punk-rock t-shirt is preserved (although in the film it’s changed to Crass, another punk diamond from the 70s; Cramps tees are likely in short supply).  Ancillary characters and background details are occasionally shifted and used to further the story in interesting ways.  Tank, a loser friend mentioned in the story, has a larger role in the film.  He’s still in a band with Lonnie and is starting his own line of organic edible face moisturizers, which he calls Face Food (something you’d think Boyle would have come up with if you hadn’t read the story).  Played by Mark Webber, Tank is bit of an enigma.  He lives in a Winnebago on the beach.  A VW bus is often parked near him, and when Lonnie and Clover ask on separate occasions who has been visiting, he says, “Some things are better left unspoken.”  He also acts as the movie’s ironic voice of reason, often spouting sagely advice to Lonnie.  On Lonnie’s first day off, the duo record a song together for the first time in years.

Lonnie: “I wish I could do that every day.”

Tank:  “Lonnie, I wanna tell you a story.  There’s a young man walking across a field and he runs into an old man who’s planting an apricot seedling.  He asks the old man, ‘Why are you planting such a new tree?’  The old man says, ‘Because I live each day as though I will never die.’  Then the young man says, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I live each day as though I will die tomorrow.  Which one of us is right?'”

Lonnie: “What does that mean?”

Tank: “Think about it, bro.”

The song they record is a transcription of Lonnie’s feelings on his trapping life, and this is obvious to everyone but Lonnie himself (he simply thinks it’s catchy): “It’s a soul-crusher, crushin’ my soul/it’s a soul-crusher, baby/waking up every day and playing this role/you love the soul-crusher, but it crushes your soul/you hate the soul crusher ’cause it kills your goals.”  Forget lyrical adroitness; this song has been extruded directly from Lonnie’s heart.  In a fantastic scene that shows almost nothing but Clover’s face for over a minute straight, Lonnie plays the rough track for her, and the fluctuations in her expressions (specifically when she knows Lonnie is watching her reactions) showcase her steadfast support of her husband even when she knows his creative work is a bit corny and probably not going anywhere.  It’s interesting to note that the phrase “soul-crushing” appears in Boyle’s original story, which may have inspired the jam.

Two important women aside from Clover appear in the film: Tipper Newton plays Jeannie, a secretary who is initially nitpicky about Lonnie’s work, but after news of the baby’s (fake) death spreads around the workplace, she becomes dejected and sallow.  Her inner tumult is evident, but she and Lonnie’s other coworkers must keep themselves composed, and Jeannie’s way of coping is to bring Lonnie lattes and cannoli; she even delivers a homemade quiche to Lonnie’s home. Eventually, she brings herself to call the house, and when Clover answers the phone, the lie is outed.  Alia Shawkat appears as Seven, Tank’s phantom girlfriend, who doesn’t show up until the second-to-last scene.  She relates a story of her own to Lonnie; the scene is shot with nearly the exact angles of the scene featuring Tank’s story, but Seven’s tale isn’t a shopworn parable; it is something that actually happened to her, and although the “meaning” of the scene is nebulous, it weighs much more heavily than Tank’s attempt to be insightful.  It’s a beautiful piece of reel.

Seven: “I love Portland.  I met an owl there once that really showed me where to go.  You know?”

Lonnie: “You met an owl?”

Seven: “Yeah.  Or it met me.”

Lonnie: “Right on.”

Lonnie’s other coworkers from the story also make effective appearances in the film: Radko (Gerry Bednob) is appropriately irascible, shouting over Lonnie’s every word.  Joel, played by Kirk Baltz (who famously had his ear sliced off in Reservoir Dogs), is more warmhearted, upset at having to take heat for Lonnie’s shortcomings at work, but who gladly covers for him after the supposed tragedy takes place.  There is a wonderful scene in which Joel seems much more grieved about the baby’s death than Lonnie (and understandably, considering that the former thinks it’s real), and seeing Joel’s sadness, we wish Lonnie had never told the lie.  This scene, along with another in which Joel and Radko present Lonnie with the collected donation money, provide a revelation that we hope Lonnie absorbs: these coworkers, people he imagines punching in the face every day, are actually quite giving and sympathetic, and consider him not only a part of their work family, but a dear friend.  Lonnie eats the cannoli, sure, but does he care that they care?

The film’s ending is heavily revised.  The original text of “The Lie” is cut off as soon as Lonnie’s deception is unearthed, preventing any real conversation or drama – how will the family move on from such a debacle?  I’m a big fan of anticlimax, but I needed another scene, and I do wonder if Boyle had anything to do with the film’s denouement: after the argument, Lonnie tearfully explains that he’s unhappy, that he’s stuck, that he wants more than anything to take care of Clover and the baby but has no idea how to do so with an unrewarding job and dead dreams.  “My music sucks,” he admits.  What follows is what he needed all along (and something we do not receive in the original): Clover’s feelings.  “What I’m doing sucks pretty bad too,” she says.  She’s not unhappily married, she’s not considering running away, but she’s buried beneath books, diapers, and the demands of her work, just like Lonnie.  The film is capped with a wonderfully organic “riding into the sunset” sequence, gentle, but assured.

I love titles like The Lie, titles that attempt definition, focus, and identification of a keystone.  In the film, it’s still pretty clear what the titular Lie is, but other lies are sprinkled amongst it: Lonnie’s career as a video editor; his hopes of making it as a musician (does he really believe he can go on tour at this stage of his life?); the couple’s “friendships” with wealthy pre-baby acquaintances; the thought that indie-rocker/hippie Clover’s true calling is law school and pantsuits.  Weixler’s performance stands out, and she radiates multitudes during a scene in which she gives Lonnie a look that, as Boyle writes, “spare[s] nothing.”  The filmmakers, using Boyle’s text as a storytelling springboard rather than copying it event-for-event, nicely round out their rendition of the story, and whether or not it represents Boyle’s vision, we must, as always, see the book version and film version as incomparable mediums.  Fading out on a stuttering blue landscape and seating us in Lonnie’s decrepit station wagon, The Lie spares nothing.

The Lie (2011); written and directed by Joshua Leonard; based on the story by T.C. Boyle; starring Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, and Mark Webber.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Results may vary

Let’s talk about dialogue for a minute.  In recent films (not all, but the majority of what’s advertised), the dialogue rides bitch to virtually everything else: plot action, concept, computer graphics, visuals, soundtrack, cinematography.  In action movies (which I’m more inclined to call Explosion Movies or Hunter-Gatherer Movies since they rarely contain much that I’d consider “action” and are always aimed at men who need a replacement activity for their prehistoric forefathers’ jobs), dialogue is reduced to laconic one-liners, all of which you’ve heard before, and which only seem to occur when the battle scenes make room for talking.  The very concept of laconic speech – that is to say, phrases that express ideas in as few words as possible – originated (or is leastways attributed to) the ancient Spartans, who, being a military culture and all-around tough guys, were expected to be men of very few words.  This tradition bled all the way down to modern America, which in its more embarrassing moments idolizes the same sorts of people – Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme (I bet you can name twenty of them) – and is used for a different purpose: not to forgo pompous polemics and long-winded spiels, but to avoid losing the attention of the twenty-first century ADD generation (non-readers, iPhone slaves, Facebook addicts, and tech junkies) that production companies seem to think constitutes 100% of consumers.  In other words, no one can pay attention anymore, and Hollywood is doing nothing to make anyone want to.

Most of the films that make any artistic impression are now independent, and free of the five-seconds-per-shot-and-sentence rule, making use of effective dialogue that moves the story along but also means something, and moreover, sounds as though the screenwriter (which, as a writer of literary prose judging the current state of film dialogue, I’m more tempted to dub a screen-outliner) actually put some time and thought into what the characters say.  Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed is one such film.  Billed as a movie about time travel, the film only skirts the subject, avoiding any real science and focusing chiefly on its characters and how they might actually interact if they were people.

The story follows Darius (Aubrey Plaza of Parks & Rec fame), a recent college graduate slogging through a dead-end internship at a snobby magazine.  When Jeff (Jake Johnson), one of the magazine’s contributors, discovers a classified ad asking for a time-travel partner (the writer of the ad claims that he’s “only done this once before”), Darius volunteers to be Jeff’s sidekick.  Accompanied by Arnau (Karan Soni), who more or less embodies the Indian Friend character archetype, the duo travel to Ocean View, Washington, with the goal of tracking down Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) and pretending to be interested in time-traveling with him in order to get a good story for the mag.  On top of this deceit, we soon learn that Jeff couldn’t care less about the story, and simply needs an excuse to travel to Ocean View so he can hook up with an old girlfriend, Liz (Jenica Bergere).  Since Arnau is relatively antisocial and only interning for the magazine for the sake of broadening his resume, Darius is left to get the story on Kenneth herself.

What follows is a carefully painted picture of how film characters act when they exhibit actual human behavior, and lo and behold, the filmmakers manage to accomplish this without use of the cheap “found footage” or “documentary style” narrative, which often involves shaky-cam and contrived storytelling meant to mimic “realism.”  Since characters, especially in a film, are still characters and not people, Darius and the others remain bound by the rules of narrative, and thus certain plot points must be unraveled before the end, but Safety Not Guaranteed handles film formula in such an adept way that the events play out naturally.  The ending is too delicious and well-delivered to spoil, but Darius and Kenneth’s motives for time travel evolve with their respective characters, and if (but especially when) time travel has taken place is something to talk about while the credits are rolling.  The film manages to forgo all of the time-travel-tropes – the fish out of water story (a modern character travels to the past and tries to blend in, or vice versa), the epic adventure (characters return to a pivotal time period in order to correct a problem), and even the doom-and-gloom story (a character’s life is saved by time travel, albeit only temporarily), and the film does this without becoming a full-on comedy (Back to the Future; A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), an adventure movie with flat characters (The Time Machine; Timeline), a tragedy (The Time Traveler’s Wife; Donnie Darko), and even without resorting to convoluted time-travel science (Primer).  The wonderfully human performances by Plaza, Duplass, and Johnson reinforce the humanity of the characters, who remain passionate about things real people are passionate about, even in the face of the fantastical: love, money, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the approval of a supervisor.  Even Jeff’s story, which involves his misguided attempt to reunite with Liz, armed only with his rusty wit and unbridled misogyny, ends the way it’s supposed to.

Aubrey Plaza is excellent in her first major leading role, and I would love to see her break further away from her April Ludgate deadpan style (although she’s very good at it) in future roles; with this film, it’s plain to see she’s got plenty of diversity in her.

It’s also interesting to note that Darius is not only a male name, but it was the name of three different Persian kings.  As the Persians and Spartans didn’t much care for one another, consider, then, a character like Darius (and a film like Safety Not Guaranteed) the antithesis to the Explosion/Hunter-Gatherer films that we (the writers, thinkers, and attention-payers) no longer want to be dragged to and deafened by.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012); written by Derek Connolly; directed by Colin Trevorrow; starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and Jake Johnson.