Saturday, March 19, 2011

The book was better...

If I didn’t watch all these movies, I might read a book once in a while. People tend to assume I actually do read books, probably because I project an air of studious impracticality. It used to be true, but at some point, cinema comprehensively took over. I used to get through a few books at least on flights and vacation and suchlike, but now you can usually plug in your laptop on the plane, even that’s mostly died off. I’ve been working on the book I’m supposedly reading currently - Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat And Crowded - virtually for a year, at the rate of a couple of pages a week. In my own defense, I do get through The New Yorker in quite fine detail, as well as several newspapers and a lot of online reading. And, you know, I do everything else I have to do. It’s also true that if I didn’t spend all this time walking the dog, I might read a book once in a while.

Ignorance Of The Source

Maybe they’re faking it, but whenever a new movie is based on a notable novel, reviewers virtually all assert or at least suggest they’re familiar with the source. I’m always forced to admit that I’m not. The pros and cons of this are obvious – I gain a fresh perspective on the one hand (to the extent I can claim to bring a fresh perspective to anything in life), but at the cost of being able to compare and contrast, to draw on the original text to appreciate the subtlety or otherwise of the filmmakers’ decisions, and so forth. But of course, plenty of people find their love of a book gets in the way of engaging with the subsequent movie’s own merits.

In a strange way, I often find myself most regretting my ignorance of the original work when it’s obvious the film is deviating so far from it that it barely matters on what it’s notionally based. I’m thinking at the moment of American cinema of the classic period, which often drew on famous material, but without any possibility of being faithful to more than the bare bones of the plot. For example, I recently watched Josef von Sternberg’s 1935 version of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. Von Sternberg’s reputation, based mainly on his seven films with Marlene Dietrich, has held up well (Criterion also received much attention last year for a DVD release of three of his silent works), but his heyday was short-lived, and by the mid-30’s he was already starting his decline.

Crime And Punishment

Crime And Punishment is barely remembered now, and the director himself thought little of it, calling it “no more related to the true text of the novel than the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower is related to the Russian environment.” Maybe that quote reveals the extent to which von Sternberg was too much a creature of Hollywood to make the project work. Anyway, based on a superficial scanning of Wikipedia, the film retains the plot’s bare bones, but it’s highly condensed (lasting less than an hour and a half) and quite nuttily intense. Peter Lorre, as an acclaimed criminologist who rejects convention (and is cracking up under the strain of his actions), employs wildly reckless line readings, dispersing ideas and philosophical assertions as if being paid by volume.

Since Edward Arnold, as a police inspector engaging him in a game of cat and mouse, is a much more conventional (and seemingly amused) presence, it sometimes takes on the air of a battle for the soul of the film itself. Certainly that soul doesn’t seem to belong to von Sternberg; compared to his deliriously confident work with Dietrich (or the feverish Shanghai Gesture, which came later), Crime And Punishment often feels distinctly unsure of itself. Still, if it’s a failure, it’s my favourite kind of failure; a fascinating, largely inexplicable fusion of elements that should never have been allowed in the same town, let alone the same movie. Assessed purely as a depiction of the novel though, I imagine it’s a failure with no possible redemption. It actually would have been nice to know.

The Emperor Jones

Actually, the film that set me off on this line of thinking wasn’t based on a book at all, but rather on a play, but exactly the same calculations apply. The Emperor Jones was written by Eugene O’Neill (and by the way, I did once read Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and filmed in 1933, directed by Dudley Murphy (unlike von Sternberg, a mere footnote in film history) and starring Paul Robeson. I’d never seen it before this year, and again it’s pretty easy to diagnose how it fails; even so, it’s one of the most striking viewing experiences I’ve had in recent months.

The film is only about 75 minutes long, and it seems just 45 minutes of that relates more or less to the play; the filmmakers added another half an hour of back story. It all results in a crazy brew, starting out as a tale of Brutus Jones leaving his community to work on a Pullman car, sampling New York’s fashionable black society, accidentally killing a guy in a gambling den and ending up on a chain gang, escaping after he kills a guard, taking refuge in the boiler room of a ship and landing on an island where, a couple of years later, he takes power and declares himself Emperor. And that’s just the first half.

The film is still startlingly raw at times, in particular for its use of the N-word, and Jones’ conduct once he attains power might seem surprisingly prophetic, given so many grim post-colonial experiences. But overall, The Emperor Jones might almost represent a white man’s half-admiring/half-fearful attempt to dramatize the entire iconography of blackness (as perceived then); at times it’s a gritty social document, at others an overwrought, gloating fantasia. And at the middle of it, there’s the amazing, charismatic Robeson, whose work I hadn’t seen for years (the Criterion DVD of the film also contains a half-hour documentary about him, sketching the outlines of a brilliant but misshapen life). The Emperor Jones frequently seems unworthy of him, and yet it has something extremely rare for the classic period of American cinema – not just a black central character, but one ultimately beyond the film’s capacity to define and contain him.

Rightly or wrongly, after watching the film I feel I’ve profited enough (albeit indirectly) from O’Neill’s play as I ever would from actually reading it. But maybe that’s only a movie addict’s rationalization. Anyway, another day went by without cracking open the Thomas Friedman book…it would be so much easier if they’d just film the damn thing…

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