Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Coincidences, Paradoxes and Ironies (Adaptation.)

It feels like it has been a very long time indeed since I checked in on the weekly doings of the 1001 Movies Blog Club. (It’s been about five or six weeks.) There was the movie I couldn’t Netflix, tried to BitTorrent, and ultimately gave up on; then there were some issues with the 1001 Club portal itself; and then I really was going to weigh in on John Sayles’s Lone Star, watched it on schedule and everything, but found I really didn’t have a lot to say about it. It was a perfectly competent film, a bit of a shaggy dog tale, which I can appreciate but not necessarily essay about. I still might have tried to dig in and find something, if only because Chris Cooper was in it, and he’s also in the film I’ll be covering today (which I watched on the 30th), and that would have made for a neat if bare-bones theme month of COOPTEMBER, which held a certain appeal. But given how busy I was at work that final couple weeks of last month, it just didn’t happen.

Still and all, moving on, the feature film this week is Adaptation. (The official title of the movie includes the terminal period, but I will be omitting it from here on out.) As mentioned, Chris Cooper appears in the flick and in fact won a Best Supporting Oscar for it, but of course it’s better known as a Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman joint where Nic Cage plays Kaufman as well as his fictional twin brother. I knew going in that it was a deeply meta movie, and metafiction is high on the list of things I geek out over, so I was psyched. (Full disclosure, I’m the blogger who picked Adaptation for the Club this week, although of course I did so long before I knew that someone else was slotting Lone Star into the schedule and the Chris Cooperfest that would result.)

I think I’m still mentally unpacking all the layers of the movie, which is a tremendous testament to the fact that it was worth my time and I enjoyed the experience. I didn’t fall in love with Adaptation, the way I did with, say, Cabin in the Woods, although I suppose that makes sense. Cabin in the Woods is very meta but it takes a very formal (formulaic, even) genre and twists and inverts it to make a very specific kind of artistic statement, and is just about flawless in doing so, which totally won me over. Adaptation plays with staggeringly Big Ideas like the meanings of our individual lives and the purpose of art (and the interplay between the two) and seems to acknowledge, probably rightfully, that there is no reducible formula for those eternal questions that would allow the filmmakers to plug in their own variables and come up with a proven correct answer. So where Cabin in the Woods offers up a polished finished product at which to marvel, Adaptation presents abstractions and ambiguities to work through on your own.

One way to approach the film is to look at the double meaning of the title itself. Ostensibly the movie is about a screenwriter who is working on an adaptation, attempting to turn a non-fiction book into a viable screenplay. And that adaptation process proves extremely difficult, and the movie more or less tracks from the writer getting the job to the writer finally figuring out how to end the script. In real life, Kaufman was in fact asked to write a screenplay based on The Orchid Thief, and in fact did have difficulty doing so, and ended up writing the screenplay for Adaptation based on that experience. The movie, in turn, also incorporates fictionalized versions of the author of The orchid Thief, and the subject of The Orchid Thief, and Kaufman’s dopey, happy-go-lucky twin brother who does not in reality exist, and bees and dinosaurs and Charles Darwin and Robert McKee and Being John Malkovich (which Kaufman also wrote). There is a lot of material to work with in the Hollywood satire aspects of the story, where studio executives buy the rights to a non-fiction book which, while compelling, has no narrative structure at all. And Kaufman doesn’t spare his own character from mockery either, writing himself as neurotic, pathetic, wrapped up in his own thoughts, and suffering from numerous other sensitive-artist-type maladies.

But again, Adaptation is about more than the well-established fact that the movie industry is crazy and executive mindsets and artistic temperaments rarely mesh well. The other meaning of adaptation in use here is that of change, of organisms responding to their environments for their own benefit and survival. Plus the more prosaic, less life-or-death sense of the word: everyone makes small adjustments all the time, every day, to adapt to all the things completely out of their control which surround them constantly. Except, perhaps, the truly pathetic and neurotic who are paralyzed by their own inescapable streams of consciousness.

The linchpin of the whole movie, I think, is Brian Cox as Robert McKee. I mean, Brian Cox is great, full stop. But the moment at which Kaufman decides to attend the McKee screenwriting seminar (which his brother has recommended as a fervent true-believer) is the turning point for his arc. Because the thing is, Kaufman has been disdainful of the idea of the seminar for almost the entire movie up to that point. And I totally, totally get that. I know how it is to assume that anyone who seems to be selling promises that any bored hausfrau or wannabe soldier of fortune can turn their uninspired, derivative daydreams into 120 pages of dialogue and stage directions that will earn them fame, respect and millions of dollars … come on, that’s gotta be a scam, and a cruel one at that. Kaufman goes to the seminar believing in True Art Which Cannot Be Taught (And Especially Cannot Be Bought and Sold) and expecting to have all of his preconceived notions reinforced and proven. And I expected that, too, anticipating nothing but a scathing caricature of the seminar-giver. But then, Brian Cox! Real talk! Kaufman posits that “real life” is nothing like “the movies” because real life doesn’t have high drama or personal journeys or resolution, and McKee smacks him down and points out that Kaufman’s assumptions are completely faulty. Real life very much has all of those things and more. The point, to us in the audience, is that Kaufman’s life does not have those things but that’s Kaufman’s own fault, not a shortcoming of human existence or the nature of reality. Kaufman gets lost in his own head and never takes action when he could do nothing, so of course his own experiences seem small and insignificant. For most of the movie he’s been saying that he wants to make a non-traditional movie, about flowers. But I don’t believe he ever articulates exactly why it’s so important to him to do that. It would be original, having never been done before, and creative types tend to put an enormous amount of value on such things. But would it be meaningful? Would it speak to his fellow human begins? Would it be worth two hours of Brian Cox’s bloody time???

And after that confrontation between McKee and Kaufman, the movie stops being about the writing process and starts being about sex and drugs and gun violence and alligator attacks and fraternal reconciliation and all the good juicy stuff like that. Or, to look at it another way, the writing process becomes about those things rather than about sitting in a dark room staring at a blank piece of paper in the typewriter.

There’s a certain mindset that holds that artists somehow miss out on living life to its fullest, because they’re too busy inventing fantasy worlds to participate in the one they live in, too occupied with painting sunsets to appreciate their beauty, &c. I disagree with that. I acknowledge that it’s possible for those things to happen, and it’s a shame when they do happen, but I don’t put much stock in believing that’s always the way it is with all sensitive, creative souls. It’s possible, and preferable (and my personal aspiration) to both squeeze every drop out of your days on earth and communicate something about it all along the way. That’s a radical line of thinking for Kaufman to adopt, but by the end of the movie, he’s adapting to it (albeit still via voiceover).

The one thing that jumped out at me as less-than-perfect with the film was Kaufman’s romantic subplot. Not that it existed within the framework of the movie, because of course it’s a perfectly apt illustration of the themes: Kaufman likes Amelia, but due to his indecision and malaise she slips away, and then he goes through his cathartic self-renewal, and then he finally makes a bold move to act on his feelings for her, and he seems to have (probably) won her back. It’s the standard stuff of screenplay padding, yet paradoxically it’s the very stuff of real life as well, so that’s all to the good. I just felt as though the script hammered so hard on what a mess Kaufman was that there was never any believable reason (or any reason at all) why Amelia would be into kaufman in the first place. It’s one thing to hit the tried-and-true beat of someone so down on himself that he misses out on love because he can’t understand what a potential partner would see in him, but the audience should at least have the ironic satisfaction of seeing what the partner sees. Here, though, there’s nothing. Adaptation tries to have it both ways, the unsparing examination of Kaufman as a character made of nothing but flaws, yet at the same time all he has to do is kiss the girl and say he loves her and she will confess she loves him too. Life is change, yes, absolutely, but change rarely comes that easily.

(I may be overthinking all of that just a touch, I realize. I am getting lost down rabbit holes of meaning in response to a movie about the perils of getting lost down rabbit holes of meaning! This, my friends, is how I roll.)

One final, random note: since I had a few minutes to spare on the train ride home after I finished watching Adaptation, I glanced over the disc’s special features, which were pretty meager. Out of bored curiosity I watched the theatrical trailer, which was pretty fantastic. It takes a fairly obvious tack: the audio is Kaufman’s monologue to Valerie near the beginning, where he says he doesn’t want to write a movie that shoehorns in sex or car chases or people overcoming adversity, and the video is of course footage of all of those things which do in fact make it into the third act of the movie. But it’s executed impeccably, and a couple of things really elevate it. Number one, while sex and car chases are easy to capture images for, the whole “overcoming adversity” concept is trickier. The trailer editor went with a shot of two Seminoles, one grabbing the other’s ears and bringing their foreheads together in a kind of “you did it” gesture. That’s great, but in the actual context of the movie that’s from a scene of the Seminoles getting high at the nursery, when Susan realizes that what she had at first taken for savage profundity was really just orchid-fueled tripping balls. Subversive!

The second thing is that the trailer is entirely set to “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie, and we all know how I feel about Queen.

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