Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: After the End of the World

The Road movie poster

 

Genre fiction has long resided on the wrong side of the chasm between escapism and literature. But as The Atlantic notes, cult writers like Neil Gaiman are crossing over into the mainstream while established novelists like Michael Chabon are exploring the genre territory blazed by the likes of Margaret Atwood. Few know these blurring barriers as well as Cormac McCarthy, a writer with firm bona fides in the literary world whose devastating 2006 novel The Road incorporated elements of speculative fiction. It become a crossover hit and landed a spot in the world’s biggest book club: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Its vision of a burned world populated by scavengers drained of all humanity is sometimes even described as a zombie story, sparking an argument over whether or not it qualifies as horror or science fiction. My own two-fold answer: of course it does, and the question is also irrelevant. Speculative futures and fanciful technology are not the true subjects of science fiction, but rather means to an end: exploring the here and now.

The Road made its way to theaters shortly after a very different vision of life after the apocalypse. Director McG’s Terminator Salvation was the fourth entry in an escapist action franchise detailing a formulaic battle for the fate of humanity. The Road is set at a time long after such heroic struggles can even be imagined, and when the drudgery of mere survival is waning. The world itself is terrifyingly realized onscreen, using real desolate locations: particularly an eerily abandoned stretch of turnpike in Pittsburgh, and the still largely lifeless blasted remains of Mount St. Helens in Washington. The only technical problem I noticed was the somewhat distracting tooth continuity throughout. Decay: now you see it, now you don’t.

A scene from The Road“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”

I re-read the novel a few days before seeing the film, which turned out to be a mistake. The book remained the emotional, visceral experience it was on my first read, but its freshness in my mind kept me somewhat detached throughout the movie. I could not help but dispassionately analyze the particulars of the adaptation. I’m among those who loved the book, but didn’t necessarily desire the movie to be faithful. The mechanics of how it could be done fascinated me. How do you adapt a book that lives and dies on the Steinbeckian terse, harsh, understated poetry of its language? Joe Penhall’s screenplay is remarkably faithful in terms of plot and sequence of events, and the few changes are mostly effective. In particular, a neat trick involved seamlessly combining three separate incidents in the novel into a single sequence: The Boy falls ill, The Man loots an abandoned boat, and they are robbed.

It’s hard to imagine a better director for The Road than John Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition, from a screenplay by Nick Cave, could have been the movie that Cormac McCarthy never made himself. But The Road as a film somehow fails to recreate the emotionally devastating effect of its source material. Another candidate for director might have been Alfonso Cuarón, who managed to transform P.D. James’ novel Children of Men into a gut-wrenching vision of a near-future society disintegrating before our eyes. McCarthy had presented Hillcoat with a significant challenge; The Road is, in a sense, a long denouement to a story we didn’t see. Perhaps the strongest argument against genre fans claiming The Road as their own is that most zombie stories concern the fall of civilization. The Road is set far after an implied cataclysm, where everything has been taken away, even the very names of the people and places that remain.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road“If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.”

That said, the McCarthy does glancingly allude to a cataclysmic event followed by violence on a massive scale, waged by tribes described as Bloodcults. There are many aspects of the back story that Hillcoat and Penhall opt to clarify (particularly the Man & Boy’s family life), but the massive wars that swept the country in the preceeding years is not one of them. This largely unspoken past in crucial to the book, as the reader contemplates how the Man, the Boy, and everyone they encountered somehow lived through it all, be it through fighting, hiding, or collaborating. The Man’s strategy for survival is to lay low and instill in his son the need to preserve a metaphorical “light” of basic humanity. We see numerous alternative strategies that also worked, but which result in the destruction of the soul. One such walking dead man we meet is Old Man (Robert Duvall), who apparently collaborated with the Bloodcults until the toxic landscape claimed his health.

Some of McCarthy’s poetically spare language is preserved in the limited voiceover narration delivered by the Man (Viggo Mortensen). But some evidence exists onscreen that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to put two and two together. While being scarcely mentioned by name in the book, “cannibalism” is one of the first words spoken in the film. It presents this savagery as the specific omnipresent threat that forces the Man and Boy to remain totally alone and self-reliant. Another clue the movie is more obsessed with cannibalism than the book: in the closing credits, a plump female character is chillingly named “well-fed woman”. That’s certainly more humor than can be found in the text.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.”

Another key element I missed from the book is the realization that the Boy has literally never seen another child, ever, which goes a long way towards explaining his careless reaction to glimpsing another boy. Long accustomed to hiding from all contact, he explodes with the dangerous need to connect. Although The Boy has evidently known little else, he seems to have the inborn need to cling to signs of life. The boy also marvels at a glimpse of a beetle — a detail which I believe was added — whose metallic-like wings refract the grayish light and provide one of the film’s only flashes of color.

The ending of the novel is something that can only work in prose. A simple change in verb tense hints at a possible future, a radical change in thinking for characters previously forced to organize their lives around immediate survival. Beyond an overarching quest to reach the ocean, they indulged in little talk of the future, or of any kind of continuance at all. Life on the literal and metaphorical road is a sick combination of drudgery and terror. Every event in their lives is sudden, unexpected, and never likely to recur in quite the same way. The final words in the novel are perhaps the first thing the boy hears that hints of a comforting routine he might expect in his future. Translated to film, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall do perhaps the only thing they could do: plug a bunch of words into a character’s mouth that was silent in the book.

Charlize Theron in The Road“My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.”

The casting is pretty much perfect, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee, who so resembles Charlize Theron that it’s eerie. Even the supporting cast is superlative, including Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker, and Garret Dillahunt. The latter is an interesting, versatile actor, having played an upper-crust psychopath in Deadwood, a criminal idiot in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a murderous cyborg in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and here a vile cannibal. That’s a remarkable range of deranged characters, but will he ever have a chance to play a normal guy?


Official site: www.theroad-movie.com

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Sass and Kick Ass: James Bond: Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale movie poster

 

Paradoxically for one of the freshest James Bond films ever made, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) is actually the third adaptation of the character’s debut in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. After a largely forgotten 1954 TV movie in which “Jimmy” Bond was awkwardly Americanized, the same premise was parodied in a 1967 farce bearing the same name, a expensive all-star disaster featuring good sports David Niven, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Meanwhile, the parallel and ongoing flood of proper Bond films abandoned the tainted Casino Royale, leaving it never satisfactorily presented on film. For most, Bond seemed born fully-formed as Sean Connery’s supremely suave secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. But where did Her Majesty’s most ruthless servant come from?

By 2006, the James Bond franchise had endured 20 movies and five lead actors (and that’s just counting the canonical installments), testament enough that it has been no stranger to innovation. The most recent overhaul was Goldeneye (1995), which introduced Pierce Brosnan alongside an incrementally more progressive attitude towards women. New-style “Bond Girls” like Michelle Yeoh were still dangerously sexy, but as adept with salty dialogue, grappling hooks, and AK-47s as the title character himself. Bond could no longer cheerfully ignore his stuffy bureaucratic boss M when played by the imperious Judy Dench, and Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) was no longer a frump longing for Bond from afar, but rather a sassy foil rocking the sexy secretary look. Significantly, the one thing that didn’t change much at all was Bond himself. The many women in his life may have gained greater leeway to sass and kick ass, but he himself was still the same old sexist dinosaur. In retrospect, the Brosnan films now look like just more of the same.

Daniel Craig in Casino RoyaleSay hello to my little friend

Proper Bond films enjoyed many high points over the years, but the franchise was very nearly rendered obsolete by two very different spy trilogies: Austin Powers (whose satire was wholly redundant after the 1967 Casino Royale) and Jason Bourne. Starting in 2002, the latter did Bond one better, permanently supercharging the secret-agent genre with visceral urgency, persistent action, moderately realistic psychology, and most crucially, granting the main character a capacity for love. Bourne (Matt Damon) was a man of conscience, wracked by crippling self-doubt and guilt. He may have been capable of spectacular feats of killing, but resented the circumstances that forced him to use those skills in order to survive, or more importantly, to protect or avenge his loved ones. He didn’t manipulate women for intelligence and sexual gratification as Bond routinely would, but rather formed an emotional attachment with one in particular that would motivate his actions for an entire trilogy.

Once the definition of high-gloss action thrillers, Bond was now on the defensive. The time was right in 2006 for its most radical reboot yet. The producers retired Brosnan (The Man With the Golden Parachute?) and underwent an extensive retooling of not just the series’ visual style but its core characters and mythos. But how much can you tweak Bond until he’s no longer the spy we love?

The traditional pre-credit action sequence still exists, but Casino Royale discards candy-coated Technicolor for a grainy, stylized black-and-white noir style. Starting chronologically at the beginning, we see Bond execute his first two kills, fulfilling his final qualification for “double-oh” MI-6 status. Longtime Bond fans were also mollified by another grand tradition that immediate followed: a motion graphics title sequence featuring a bevy of semi-nude female silhouettes. This particular animation, with its stark red and black vector graphics, may have provided inspiration for the opening titles of the 2007 television series Mad Men. Unfortunately, Chris Cornell’s lame, tuneless song “You Know My Name” nearly ruins it.

Eva Green in Casino RoyaleYou noticed…

Further comforting continuity with the previous installations comes via ridiculous amounts of high-end product placement (cars, watches, sunglasses, etc.) and a globe-trotting series of locations (Uganda, Madagascar, Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, and Venice). Casino Royale also doesn’t fail to over-egg the pudding in terms of its villain. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is scarred and asthmatic, with irritated tear ducts that seep blood. It was enough to signify evil in the old days that the baddie merely have metal teeth or a fluffy kitty cat.

But that’s where the concessions to Bond tradition end. To discuss what’s new, let’s start with Bond himself. No matter how much testosterone fan-favorite Sean Connery exuded, he could still be slightly effete, fussing over vanities and creature comforts like a well-prepared martini. The Roger Moore era played up the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the series, but gorgeous women falling into bed with the frankly rather old, limp Moore was implausible at best. The suave Brosnan was born to play the classic version of Bond, but he wasn’t getting any younger as his films became as overblown and science-fictiony as the worst excesses of the Moore period. (I haven’t seen any of the Timothy Dalton or George Lazenby films, so I can’t comment on them.) Daniel Craig may not be the most macho Bond (Connery remains fandom’s favorite, for good reason), but he is clearly the most brutish and masculine. Younger, furious, and buff, he’s a giant slab of man. In a hilariously clever inversion of tradition, Bond now bares more flesh than any of his female companions, especially in an instantly iconic shot of him striding out of the ocean just barely wearing a scanty swimsuit. This Bond is almost absurdly physically fit, a parkour expert, and gets painfully bruised and scarred in fights. The days of Bond walking away from fisticuffs and fireballs with nary a hair or bowtie astray are over.

Caterina Murino in Casino RoyaleWait… there was another Bond girl besides Eva Green?

21st Century Bond Girls are smarter and more proactive than ever, but not at the expense of being drop-dead gorgeous and at least half the age of the current lead actor. In this Dork Reporter’s estimation, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd ought to go down in history as one of the greatest yet. She may not be as physically adept at action as Michelle Yeoh, but she is one of the most beautiful. Best of all, she’s enjoyably conceived by writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis as a true foil for the naughty double-entendres that still roll off this Bond’s tongue. She made such a strong impression on me, that when rewatching the film on DVD, I realized I had forgotten all about the other Bond Girl, Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios. Her character provides for a quick throwback to retro Bond; he flirts with her solely for information and then cruelly abandons her to certain death.

The thrilling film downshifts for a long poker sequence, with no mercy shown for anyone who doesn’t understand the game (like, say, me). There does seem to have been a miscalibration however, during one scene where even I could sense Le Chiffre was double-bluffing an oblivious Bond.

Dench is the only returning player from the Brosnan era, but her character is now part ruthless boss and part tough-love mother figure. The one convention of the classic, sillier Bond stories that I do miss is Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his wonderful inventions. The highlight of every Connery, Moore, or Brosnan film for me was always the customary stroll through Q’s lab as his latest prototypes malfunction in amusingly lethal manners. I would cheerfully recite along with Q’s scolding catchphrase “Oh Bond, do pay attention.”

Whenever I see any Bond film, I’m always surprised at how enthusiastically he lives up to his “license to kill” reputation. The body count is always high, but Casino Royale is even more violent than most. What differentiates it is the time spent dwelling on the aftermath, including Bond having to hide bodies instead of simply strolling away from the carnage without repercussions. There’s also a fleeting dash of crude morality rarely if ever seen in the series; Bond must awkwardly comfort Vesper, traumatized by her culpability in one of Bond’s kills. And whereas old-school Bond villains would merely threaten bodily harm with laser beams and tarantulas, Bond must now must face ugly, raw torture (which is A-OK with the hypocritical MPAA’s notion of PG-13 movies, apparently – but that’s a rant for another time).


Official movie site: http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/casinoroyale/site/flash.html

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Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Let the Right One In movie poster

 

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is unapologetically a vampire story. It follows most of the rules of the genre but avoids the standard trappings of spectacular bloodletting (like, say, Blade) and simplistic sexual metaphors (we’re looking at you, Twilight). Director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter John Ajvide (adapting his own novel) are startlingly frank not just in their depictions of the ritualistic violence inherent in a vampire’s everyday toil, but also in the desperate hungers and desires of all their human characters as well.

Novel and film are both set in 1980s Sweden, at a time when the famously independent, neutral nation was struggling through a Cold War economic recession. 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is meek, frail, and so fair as to seem albino. He splits his time between a scolding mother and a loving but distant father with unexplained secrets. The only time we see Oskar happy is when playing in the snow at his father’s rural home. An ominous guest arrives, muting even conversation (we never learn the man’s identity, or the reason for his smothering effect, but for story purposes it only matters that Oskar cannot be happy even here). Oskar is constantly bullied by school thugs seemingly inspired by the savage torturers from the movie Deliverance: their favorite taunt is to demand he squeal like a pig. The constant pressure drives him morbidly inward, rapidly becoming a potential danger to himself and others. He secretly collects gruesome newspaper clippings of local crimes, and sneaks outside at night to playact his vengeance with matches and a knife. It’s easy for a 21st Century viewer to imagine Oskar becoming a school shooter.

Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One InEli (Lina Leandersson) has been twelve for a long time

A mysterious couple moves in next door in the dead of night: Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl appearing about his age, and her adult companion Håkan (Per Ragnar). Eli interrupts one of Oskar’s solitary nighttime revenge fantasies, and they strike up a sort of friendship. As the habitually aloof Eli warms to his company, she advises him to fight back against his oppressors. When he gets a chance to do so, Hedebrant’s startling performance during his triumph conveys a disturbing impression of a too-young boy experiencing a kind of ecstasy. Compare and contrast his obvious pleasure with the wholly dispassionate murders committed by Eli and Håkan. One wonders how Alfredson directed the young actor towards such a performance, and how much Hedebrant knew about the subtext of how the scene would play on the screen. As becomes clear, Eli may not have had the boy’s best interests at heart; was she urging him to stand up for himself, or setting him up for a bigger fall later? Either way, she succeeds in binding him more closely to her.

Although Oskar is pubescent, his infatuation with her does not seem to be especially sexual. His hungers are more for companionship and understanding. Eli says she is “not a girl,” and asks Oskar if he would still like her were she not. With little hesitation, he answers yes. He catches a glimpse of her naked torso, seeing what seems to be a castration mark. But Eli is far more than just not a girl. Subtle special effects give us fleeting images of her with eerily enlarged eyes and as an older woman. She is permanently frozen in a state of childhood, but it seems she hasn’t matured intellectually and emotionally as her body remains in stasis (unlike the young character Claudia in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire). As she tells him “I’ve been twelve for a long time.”

Let the Right One InVampires are hot stuff in bed

Although it doesn’t resemble more typical vampire tales, Let the Right One In does follow most of the mythos: vampires have to be invited in (hence the name; to enter uninvited will cause a painful, bloody death – a fate Eli demonstrates to Oskar to prove her affection for him); any victim bitten but not killed will become a vampire (Eli is shown to break a victim’s spine after feeding – a belated form of mercy coming from a vampire, I suppose); housecats are compelled to attack vampires (as seen in not one of the most convincing special effects sequences), and sunlight causes them to spontaneously combust (as seen in one very convincing sequence).

Eli shares with Oskar her motto “To flee is life. To linger, death.” Like her encouragement to fight back against bullies, here is the key to understanding the mystery of her devoted human companion Håkan. Eli has outsourced her physical needs to her selflessly devoted servant, essentially making him into a serial killer on her behalf. What motivates him to comply? Was he once a boy, like Oscar, that fell in love with her? Whatever their bond, she ensures that Oskar is next in line to become her new provider.

After writing the above, I read The A.V. Club’s excellent Book Vs. Film: Let the Right One In by Tasha Robinson (part of a series also including Watchmen). In short, yes, a great deal needed to be omitted from the novel to shape the story into a feature film. But Robinson approves; rather than leaving too much out, the movie fruitfully chooses a very different, more internal version of the story. Some tidbits gleaned from the article that may be of interest to anyone else that hasn’t read the book:

  • The book is a more graphic, conventional horror story.
  • Oskar’s father’s friend is a less sinister character in the book. Simply, he’s a drinking buddy, and Oskar’s otherwise decent father is apparently a mean drunk.
  • The title is derived from a Morrissey song quoted in the book: “Let the right one in / let the old dreams die / let the wrong ones go / They cannot do what you want them to do”
  • The Oskar of the novel is overweight, inspiring the bullies’ “piggy” taunts.
  • The Håkan of the book is a pedophile. Eli encountered him as an adult, and she trades some sexual favors for his services. Skimming the comments left below Robinson’s article, I see most other viewers interpreted the movie the same way I did.

Official movie site: www.lettherightoneinmovie.com

Must read: Let the Wrong Subtitles in to Let the Right One In. Icons of Fright finds the English translation lacking.

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Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited movie poster

 

Director Julian Jarrold’s lavish period piece Brideshead Revisited trots the globe like a genteel James Bond adventure, visiting London, Venice, and Morocco, but especially the opulent Castle Howard. From the perspective of an ignoramus that hasn’t read Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this compressed version of what I imagine to be a grander prose narrative doesn’t much fit the traditional structure of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major character disappears halfway through, and the internal contradiction of another’s stunted emotional life versus his grasping desires is not a very cinematic subject.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a voraciously ambitious only child of a bitter, sarcastic, widowed father. He leaves his emotionally stifling home behind to study history at Oxford. His true aspirations are to be a painter, even though the chilly atheist does not seem to posses the rich emotional life of an artist. His middle-class London fashions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on campus, he feels immediately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sexuality as he is fascinated by their outwardly dramatic, emotionally honest natures, and considerable wealth – none of which he posesses. Curiously, Goode’s most recent screen appearance is as the similarly emotionless and sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in Watchmen (read The Dork Report review).

Julia Flyte, Emma Thompson, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedMy loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires;I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those others we desperately wish to be

One among Charles’ new friends is equally hungry to attach himself to him in return. The alcoholic, infantile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and housekeeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being featured front and center in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opulence of Sebastian’s vast family estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly atheist Charles mimics his host and genuflects. Sebastian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class altogether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essential nature of his character when he replies that he was “just trying to fit in.”

But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unloving patriarch, Brideshead is blanketed by Lady Marchmain’s oppressive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) escaped by decamping to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more liberal: they live their lives as they wish, and simply confess their sins away when necessary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) understands the situation: this homosexual dalliance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebastian is truly in love with him. We later learn that Lady Marchmain, whom one might assume would be blinkered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analysis of what drives Charles to attach himself to the family: “You’re so desperate to be liked, Charles.”

Julia Flyte, Ben Whishaw, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead RevisitedDrinking is not a hobby, Sebastian.

Charles is able to psychoanalyze himself in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are driven by desire: for the affections of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to be praised by high society as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emotion and empathy. He calmly divorces his wife offscreen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead. But as her family gives the sacrament of last rites to Lord Marchmain against his wishes, she perceives a miracle as he relents and reaccepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekindled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have ensured the final generation of the family, and leave the desirous manse to no one.


Official movie site: www.bridesheadrevisited-themovie.com

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The Reader

The Reader movie poster

 

Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) and screenwriter David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel (produced by the late Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack) studies evolving notions of German postwar guilt and culpability. Unfolding across three distinct time periods (1958, 1966, and 1995), The Reader hinges on a significant reveal in its middle that recasts previously seen events. This is not to compare it to more infamous examples of stunt plotting like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, both easier to introduce without spoiling their big reveals: Brad Pitt and Edward Norton beat each other up for fun! Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis investigate ghosts! Without its crucial piece of information revealed midway through, one would be forced to describe The Reader as merely a story about a young man who has an affair with an older woman.

In 1958 Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) has a summer-long affair with a 36-year-old stranger Hanna (Kate Winslet). For him, the relationship is heatedly emotional and erotic, but for the strangely dispassionate woman it seems to be about fulfilling some unknown need or hunger that he (or the audience, yet) doesn’t understand. Her sexual advances are sudden and blunt, and he doesn’t even learn her name until their third assignation. She bathes him harshly and dispassionately, certainly not as a lover, or even a mother would her child. Hanna repeatedly reinforces their age differential by insisting on calling him “kid,” but reverses traditional age roles by having him read to her. As the summer passes, she more overtly trades sex for reading. The highly regimented Hanna has excelled at her job of selling bus tickets, and faces a promotion. We don’t yet know why, but she doesn’t want to stand out. She abruptly leaves town, cutting off the affair.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderIt says right here in my contract that I get a half dozen sex scenes with you…

In 1966, Michael (still played by Kross) is in law school. As part of a seminar studying the Holocaust, he attends the trial of several accused concentration camp guards, one of whom turns out to be Hanna. Despite managing to hide in plain sight for years, she now unapologetically tells the truth, seemingly unaware of how doing so indicts herself. Michael is horrified to learn that what she calls her “job” was to be a guard at the most infamous of all evil places on earth: Auschwitz. The particular crime she is on trial for is locking hundreds of prisoners inside a burning church. Her more self-serving cohorts attempt to pin her as the leader, in order to lessen their own culpability.

One seemingly minor anecdote is told about her habits at the camp: she chose a few young women to feed and protect. The prisoners suspected her of being a lesbian, an exploitation they could understand, but she only asked in return that they read aloud to her. She would not protect her girls forever; when one met their death, she would simply select another girl. This anecdote is understood by the court to be an inexplicable quirk of an evil person, a mere matter of character, but Michael realizes the truth: she was, and remains, illiterate. Michael is forced to recast the meaning of their affair in his mind. In a way, he was also her captive, and she similarly used him for her literary edification (and not for, as his teenage mind would have fantasied, love or at least sexual gratification). Was he somehow to her like the girls she chose in the camp to entertain her? Did she do so out of self-interest, or to give them temporary comfort before they died? Or some combination of the two, a kind of tradeoff?

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderKate Winslet is shocked, shocked to learn there are naughty bits in Lady Chatterly’s Lover

Hanna could absolve herself of at least one charge. By admitting her illiteracy, she could prove that she was not solely responsible for covering up the church incident. But she mystifyingly chooses to accept culpability rather than admit she can’t read. The mystery of the character is how anyone would be so ashamed of their illiteracy that they would effectively condemn themself to a lifetime prison sentence instead of the 3-4 years that her cohorts receive. Michael could help her case by coming forward, but does not. Is he protecting his privacy, or effectively choosing to punish her? Both? In 1995, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes, looking and sounding more and more like Laurence Olivier) opts to give her a significant present from afar. He begins with cassette tapes of him reading, and later provides the tools to help her teach herself to read.

A key question is whether or not he has forgiven her for her crimes against humanity, not to mention those against him: breaking his heart and arguably sexually abusing him. Technically, Hanna is a pedophile. Such crimes are usually imagined as being perpetrated by men. Certainly, films aren’t made where a 15-year-old girl’s relationship with a hot 36 year old male might be seen as a sexual awakening. But Michael is in fact damaged; as he grows into an adult, his ability to forge solid relationships (either romantic relationships with women or as a parent to his own daughter) is stunted. When he first met Hanna, he saw her as adult and sexy. But in prison she is reduced to a childlike state, learning to read like a little girl. When the adult Michael comes to visit her, it is he that is the adult and she the trembling dependent looking up to him, even though she is chronologically much older.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderThis rare spy shot from the set of The Reader shows David Kross and Kate Winslet actually clothed

Because The Reader is a movie, and movies star stars, and because Kate Winslett is gorgeous and frequently naked, one instinctively wants to sympathize with her character Hannah. But the fact of the matter is that Hannah is a monster. What makes the character interesting is that she evidently can’t see the enormity of what makes her, for lack of a better word, evil. The eminently practical Hanna does not seem to be a woman of many passions. She even seems surprised at first that the young Michael might be attracted to her sexually. When we meet her, she spends her joyless life alone in a drab flat and mundane job selling bus tickets. We later learn that she approached her “responsibilities” at Auschwitz with the same rigidity. She baldly admits to the events and what she did, not even really hiding behind the standard excuse of just following orders. In her mind, she seems to have been acting out of duty and responsibility to execute (so to speak) the requirements of her job. Hanna is so madly rule-oriented that she equated the subjugation of her prisoners to being a kind of protective responsibility.

A total lack of remorse is a sign of a sociopath, or of someone who is psychologically protecting themselves from confronting what they have done. Whether she compartmentalized her emotions or didn’t have any to begin with, Hanna was able to function as a cog in a giant atrocity machine, and to live on dispassionately afterwards. She must not be alone, for countless people operated just like her, making the Holocaust possible. Hanna is interesting to compare with costar Fiennes’ role as the Nazi commandant Amon Göth in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Göth was tortured by his attraction to a Jewish woman that his job (and German society at the time) dictated that he must view as less than human. He is an evil man who nevertheless seems more able than Hanna to faintly perceive his depravity.

Ralph Fiennes in The ReaderRalph Fiennes is depressed he’s not in any of The Reader’s sex scenes

Ron Rosenbaum took offense to the “Holocaust porn” aspects of both the novel and the film for Slate Magazine. Is the story “redemptive,” as Rosenbaum accuses? As I thought about the film more, I think that Hanna’s shame over her illiteracy was something to cling to, when she couldn’t grasp the enormity of her crimes. It was easier for her to allow herself to go to jail under the umbrella, in her own mind at least, of continuing to hide the much lesser of her two secrets. So, I don’t think the film and novel take the stance that illiteracy is a greater shame than enabling the Holocaust; but rather Hanna’s intellectual deficiency is emotionally easier for her to cling to than admit to the oblivious herd mentality that allowed her to rigidly follow the rules and help effect the Final Solution.

Rosenbaum also accuses the film of portraying ordinary Germans as being ignorant of the Holocaust. Perhaps Rosenbaum doesn’t recall the law school sequences in which Professor Rohl (Bruno Gantz), himself a camp survivor, holds a seminar with some of his best law students discussing German guilt and culpability. I found it interesting to consider the first generation of Germans (represented by Michael) that grew up after the war, surrounded by adults that lived through it and had varying degrees of involvement (active or passive). Some of the most reprehensible characters in the film (even more so than Hanna) are her comrades that deny that anything happened. The only character I can think of that may support Rosenbaum’s accusation is the war crimes judge presiding over Hanna’s case. He would have theoretically been in a position of power during the war, but is seen affecting outrage at Hannah’s crimes.

Personally, I found Hanna to be an interesting character, which is not the same as sympathetic. I would describe her as infantilized and not even really worthy of pity. My interpretation of the story is that Michael chose to punish her by allowing her to indict herself on the witness stand, but in her mind it was due to the far more palatable excuse of keeping the secret of her illiteracy. She avoided accepting her own war crimes in order to make it possible to live with herself. The adult Michael gifts her a belated education, which is not necessarily an act of kindness. Perhaps he believes that stimulating her intelligence and imagination might enable her to understand her guilt. If so, he utterly succeeds, for she kills herself. It’s ambiguous whether he suicide is about guilt or simply over her fear of functioning in society after decades in prison.

The biggest clue that the outwardly cold Hanna is even capable of having buried emotions and guilt is the fact that she is interested in books at all. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make logical sense that this cold, dispassionate person who seduces and fucks with as little emotion as she sells bus tickets, works in a concentration camp, or allows hundreds of Jews to burn to death, would have a love for literature.


Official movie site: www.thereader-movie.com

Must Read: Don’t Give an Oscar to The Reader by Ron Rosenbaum

Buy the original novel by Bernhard Schlink or DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Blindness

Blindness movie poster

 

Director Fernando Meirelles has examined desperate pressure cookers City of God) and institutional corruption (The Constant Gardener) before. Blindness proves perfect to meld both themes, with a science fiction twist imagining the downfall of civilization itself.

Blindness is part of a special subset of the horror/sci-fi/disaster genre: the dystopian end-of-civilization nightmare. Whereas the typical entry works by introducing a disrupting element into the status quo (typically a monster), a few instead subtract one fundamental fact of life that we take for granted. The basic recipe is simple: flip one switch, and watch civilization fall in short order. In Children of Men (read The Dork Report review), humanity becomes infertile. In the Happening (read The Dork Report review), the biosphere starts pumping out poison. In the comic book series Y: The Last Man, all males on the planet suddenly die off. In innumerable zombie flicks (read The Dork Report’s George A. Romero Zombie Cycle), death is no longer absolute. It may not be a coincidence that at least two members of the Blindness cast already have relevant experience on their résumés: Julianne Moore in Children of Men and Alice Braga in I Am Legend.

Julianne Moore in Blindness“The only thing more terrifying than blindness is being the only one who can see.”

All of these stories bleed over into the genre realms of science fiction and horror. Blindness, however, is based on the magical realist (if it’s accurate for me to call it that) novel by José Saramago. The novel is set in a generic city, featuring unnamed characters (the movie, filmed in São Paulo, Brazil, effectively preserves both conceits – I didn’t notice until the credits rolled that the characters did not have names). Without getting bogged down in pseudo-scientific details, Zaramago posits a highly contagious “White Blindness” that rapidly sweeps the globe, affecting everyone but one random woman. The movie’s explanation is a far more literal highly communicable disease, diagnosed for the audience by the unnamed opthamologist “Doctor” (Mark Ruffalo). By sheer coincidence, The Doctor’s Wife (Moore) appears to be immune. The obvious challenge for the filmmakers is how to render a prose story about blindness into the most visual storytelling medium of all. Cinematographer César Charlone (who also shot City of God and The Constant Gardener) meets the challenge by creating stunning visuals which paradoxically obscure. The picture frequently flares into a burned-out whiteness, often a relief from the ugly filth in which the characters find themselves living as the safety net of society collapses.

The story brutally details a basically pessimistic view of human nature. Right from the start, humanity’s inherent greed and avarice make a catastrophic situation worse. The very first victim of the disease is immediately exploited by a car thief (ironic, as automobiles are shortly to become the most futile of valuables to steal). As the blindness disease spreads, the authorities (represented by The Minister of Health, in what amounts to a cameo by Sandra Oh) attempt to contain the infected in isolation wards, a weak euphemism for concentration camps. As The Man With the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover) states in a nicely written but implausibly eloquent monologue, “the disease was immune to bureaucracy.”

Dany Glover in Blindness“I know that part inside you with no name, and that’s who we are, right?”

The infected are made up of characters from many cultural and economic backgrounds, much like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Left alone to self-organize, two opposing societies coalesce around two very different natural leaders. The Doctor and his Wife create a fragile but functioning democracy, but the King of Ward Three (Gael García Bernal) forges a depraved Sodom built on exploiting their few resources for short-term base pleasures. Inevitably, the two fledgling states go to war, as much out of ideology as for want of resources. As the ward denizens’ circumstances get worse and worse, the movie itself becomes a punishing experience to watch (an imitative fallacy). In terms of depictions of violence, it is no less explicit than, say, Children of Men, but wholly lacks that superior film’s dark wit and essential thread of hope. Whereas Children of Men had no real villain (Luke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was actually more of a Che Guevarra-type revolutionary), there is little or no subtlety of character in Blindness’ wholly evil bad guys. Would the central allegory be more interesting to ponder if the villains were not so unambiguously monstrous? Even I Am Legend dropped hints that its vampire/zombie-like monsters possessed crude intelligence, a will to live, and empathy for their own kind.

The fragile community in the wards disintegrates into a hell of gang rape and open war. Then, amazingly, it gets worse. But as the walls of the prison burn, the prisoners discover the doors have actually been left open. If anything, the world outside has become worse off than the pressure cooker in which they were imprisoned. After a harrowing trip through the devastated city, they experience one fleeting moment of joy as they bathe in the rain. Afterwards, they set up an eden in the Doctor and his Wife’s former home, like a less-satiric version of the fortified suburban shopping mall in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (read The Dork Report review). The Doctor’s Wife’s newly extended family embraces her as their “leader with vision.”


Official movie site: http://blindness-themovie.com/

Buy the novel or DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner

 

Since resurrecting The Dork Report earlier this year with the intent of writing something about every movie I see, The Kite Runner is the first about which I have little to say. Perhaps the movie appealed more to people with an emotional connection to the novel (I haven’t read it). But, as per the rules I set for myself with this blog, I have to say something, so here it is:

I’ll applaud any film that presents the Taliban as a bunch of child buggerers.

The Kite RunnerOh, go fly a kite

Official movie site: www.kiterunnermovie.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.