Saturday, December 28, 2002

ADMIRATION: Saw Adaptation last night at the new Bridge "cinema de lux" theatre in University City -- which, in and of itself, merits comment at some point, but not now.

There is much to admire about Adaptation -- the inventiveness of the script, the performances, and just the sheer technical achievement of getting two Nicholas Cages into the same frame. This is a terrific concept for a movie -- a movie that both attacks and consciously adheres to the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking, showing why certain stories are both unadaptable to narrative filmmaking yet adapting this one just the same, decrying the inability of a movie to convey cinematically the sheer beauty of an orchid while nevertheless finding a way to celebrate it.

It is, on one level, a delicious mobius strip. But that's its problem as well -- I was so enraptured by the movie-within-and-above-the-movie that I was seeing that I was unable to connect on any emotional level with the characters within the movie. The whole enterprise left me cold. I just didn't care about what I was seeing, because I was too busy deconstructing its own self-deconstruction. I was anticipating its own moves even before the script called your attention to it -- the level of self-referentialism almost forbids you from making any other kind of attachment to the movie but a purely intellectual one.

Being John Malkovich, the last film by the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman duo, was also a colossal mindfuck, but it was one of a different sort: its discursions on the nature of identity had a depth and feeling to them that this movie didn't. You cared about the characters in that film, and you wanted to see how things ended up -- because, unlike Adaptation, the movie allowed you to lose yourself in the cinematic experience as opposed to making you self-conscious and feel complicit in the act of watching an artificial creation adapted, more-or-less, from a real-life book.

Adaptation shreds the wall between truth and fiction. It will likely make you question any movie you see from this point forward that it alleged to have a basis in reality, and will help you see the narrative conventions being used to make you care about the characters and give you the emotional reactions that a good movie does. Real life just isn't structured the way satisfying fiction or film is, which isn't to say that it's not interesting: of course it is, and the movie makes a big point of saying this. It recognizes the futility of just trying to make a nice movie about flowers, so instead it makes one about the futility of making a nice movie about flowers, only it does so by, well, I can't give away the third act. That's not fair. But I can say that its way of calling attention to itself puts the viewer on an impossible tightrope. Either you passively watch the movie oblivious to everything it's underlining in terms of its adherence to formal conventions, and enjoy it for the goofy, unexpected romp which follows; or you remain cognizant of all that and appreciate the movie, but never escape from the experience of knowing that You Are Watching A Movie.

I mean, gosh, it's all really interesting. It really is. I admired the heck out of what they were trying to do here. It just didn't work completely for me -- or, maybe, it did, and I responded in exactly the way it was intended. Who knows?

Would you like to know more? I can only commend to you Janet Malcolm's book The Crime of Sheila McGouch, about the impossibility of arranging real-life narratives to be courtroom-plausible. It's an absolute favorite of mine, and if you find this stuff interesting, start there.

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