I’ve been to a lot of films recently, and I don’t have the time, I’m afraid,
to write about them all. But I would like to try to correct what seems to be
a general misconception that the cool new film to see is the one written by
Charlie Kaufman – Adapatation.
The fact is, Charlie Kaufman did write the cool new film to see, and it is an
adaptation of a popular book. But the book isn’t The Orchid Thief,
it’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Let’s get Adaptation out of the way first. Every columnist, it is
said, is allowed precisely one column about how hard it is to write the column,
how he has nothing to say in his column, how he needs to turn in something but
can’t think of anything to write, that sort of thing. Even when it’s done well,
it reeks of desperation. Adaptation is the filmic equivalent of that
one column. Charlie Kaufman has got away with it, mainly because he’s Charlie
Kaufman, and in the wake of the success of Being John Malkovich, he
and Spike Jonze could do pretty much anything they wanted. But insofar as Adaptation
represents a whole new genre in filmmaking, it only does so because it’s a genre
which shouldn’t exist, and which should never be repeated.
Tortured-writer films, of course, are nothing new: think Barton Fink.
But the idea of writing yourself into your movie, as well as the author of the
book you’re adapting, doesn’t raise interesting questions about the difference
between fiction and reality: it’s really just a po-mo pain in the arse. And
it doesn’t help that Kaufman turns out to be not so good at writing writers:
of the four leads (counting Nicolas Cage twice), three are writers, and only
the fourth (John Laroche, played wonderfully by Chris Cooper) is either sympathetic
To see what a good adaptation should be like, one only needs to go see Confessions
of a Dangerous Mind instead. It’s a rollicking yarn, which purports
to be the true story of Chuck Barris, a man responsible for many game shows
on the telly. Barris wrote a memoir in which he claimed to have led a secret
life as a CIA hitman, and the film, ingeniously, is completely faithful to the
book: nowhere does it indicate that Barris made the whole thing up.
At the same time, the director, George Clooney (!) has saturated virtually
every frame of the film with various cinematographic effects: the real-life
interviews are blown out, with a few high-impact colours, while the scenes set
in the golden era of network television are as stylised and appealingly artificial
as anything in Catch
Me If You Can. Clooney hired Newton Thomas Sigel as his cinematographer
after working with him on Three Kings, but this time brought a much
more coherent directorial vision to Sigel’s tricked-out talents.
Clooney loves his virtuoso shots: my favourite was one set in the lobby of
NBC, when Barris (Sam Rockwell) joins an official tour of the building, peels
off to ask where he can get a job, is pointed off screen, and then is next seen
in the very same shot leading a tour himself. It goes on: the camera zooms in
on a conversation between two employees, one of whom is the girl we first saw
leading the origional tour, and then zooms out to include Barris in his third
incarnation, listening to them swoon over the prospect of meeting a man in middle
management. I’m not sure why it made me think of Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s
certainly look-at-me filmmaking, and Clooney pulls it off with aplomb.
Clooney stars, as well (natch: when was the last time you saw an actor making
a directorial debut in which he didn’t star?) as deadpan CIA agent Jim Byrd.
As Ricky Jay says in Heist, this motherfucker is so cool, when he goes
to bed, sheep count him. In fact, Clooney is almost too cool for his own film:
his still, central presence is so magnetic that our supposed hero seems little
more than a flailing doofus by comparison, even when he’s sparring with his
cold war femme fatale, Patricia (Julia Roberts). They quote Nabokov
at each other: "All the information I have about myself is from forged
documents". It’s a quotation I haven’t been able to verify, although it
sounds plausible enough – maybe Pale Fire? – and it’s about
as close as the film comes to admitting the rocky basis of its own foundation.
The other major character in the film is Penny, in a performance of beautiful
openness and freshness by the underrated Drew Barrymore. It’s very rare for
the women in biopics of men to be fully-rounded characters, but here we feel
if anything that we understand Barris’s girlfriend more than we understand him.
In a world where even biopics about women directed by women (Frida)
end up with the guy getting all the glory and the interesting exposition, it’s
very good to see Clooney and Barrymore creating a strong, memorable female character.
One alternative to strong, memorable female characters, of course, is weak,
memorable female characters. Rebecca Miller has created three of these, in Personal
Velocity, a film subtitled "Three Portraits".
The three women – Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), Greta (Parker Posey) and Paula
(Fairuza Balk) are not actually weak, although one could be forgiven for getting
that impression from the omniscient male narrator who irritatingly insists on
telling us what’s going on in each of the three episodes.
The first episode, Delia’s, is by far the weakest. Sedgwick plays a battered
wife who gathers up her kids and runs away from her husband to try to find a
new life for herself upstate. Um, that’s it, really. It’s worthy, and artfully
allusive, but I couldn’t really fault the man who walked out of the movie theatre
after it was over, thereby missing a wonderful performance by the always-excellent
My problem with Posey’s story is not that it is badly told, but that it carries
with it the vaguest smell of anti-semitism. Posey plays a content downtown bohemian
book editor, toiling away on cookbooks while her boss (Wallace Shawn) ignores
her. She’s estranged from her father, a successful Jewish lawyer, and very close
to her husband, an unsuccessful WASP. Over the course of the film, she starts
turning those two relationships around, renewing her relationship with her dad
while drifting apart from her husband.
The problem is that the catalyst for this change in her life is when she suddenly
gets a high-profile editing job, out of the blue, on the recommendation of the
latest hot author’s ex-girlfriend, who knew her at Harvard. (If you’re not following,
don’t worry, it’s not important.) Before you know it, she’s consumed with ambition,
jumping ship to other publishing houses, thinking of hitting up her father’s
friends to start up an imprint of her own, that sort of thing. At the same time,
she’s rediscovering her Jewish roots, with a digression about a rabbinical student
she had an affair with shortly before her marriage, who complained that her
fiancé wasn’t even Jewish. It’s hard to see why Miller makes such a big
deal of the religious aspects to the affair, unless it’s to somehow imply that
a Jewish husband might somehow have been more in tune with the avaricious monster
that Posey eventually turns into.
In the final story, Balk plays a confused former runaway who, after a nasty
accident in downtown New York, heads upstate in her car for no particular reason
that she can think of. On the way, she picks up a kid who’s standing in the
rain by the side of the road. There are lots of big issues here: abuse, pregnancy,
runaways, and again none of them are addressed face-on: you just watch the film,
see Balk struggling with her issues, and then, as in the previous two stories,
see everything end on a grace note which doesn’t really tie anything up but
at least gives the impression that our protagonist has reached some kind of
It would all make for a vaguely good film, if it wasn’t for the fact that it
was shot on digital video (DV), and is therefore nigh-on unwatchable. Much has
been made over the past few years of the way in which DV lowers the costs of
making films, thereby removing the monopoly which Hollywood has over what we
see in theatres.
The fact is, however, that DV is still a very, very long way from producing
pictures of the sort of quality which would be even halfways acceptable to Hollywood.
The magic of the movies – the reason why so many people love them so much
– is up there on the screen somewhere, in that cone of projected light.
At any point in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, it is possible to
just forget everything about the structure of the film, and simply bask in the
images, in a pure This Is Cinema kind of way.
With films shot on DV, however, the opposite is true. You constantly have to
try to stop yourself from being distracted and irritated by digital artifacts
in the image, by nastily pixellated light sources, by supposedly straight diagonal
lines which look more like jagged ladders. Flesh tones are appalling, as a rule,
and there’s no sensuousness on screen, even in the most high-budget of DV features,
like The Anniversary Party or Dancer in the Dark.
DV isn’t even up to television quality yet. Or rather, if you watch a DV-shot
film on DVD, it’s obvious that it was shot on DV, even when you’re watching
it on a perfectly ordinary television. I’m not all that surprised, if you compare
the size and sophistication of the average television studio’s cameras with
the cheap hand-held numbers that are used by most people shooting films on DV.
I’ve found that most of the time, reviewers and festivalgoers deliberately
overlook the weakness of the medium when they’re rating movies. That’s how films
come to get big theatrical releases: they’re a huge success at Sundance, where
everybody’s well versed in ignoring the elephant in the room.
When I spend my $10 to go see a movie, however, I’m looking forward to the
full cinematic experience. However touching a story might be, a film shot on
DV is never going to give me that. (With the possible exception of Dancer
in the Dark.) I think that it could be for that reason alone that I
much preferred Igby Goes Down and 13 Conversations About One Thing
to Tadpole and Personal Velocity. So if you want to make a
movie that people will really love, make it on film. Whatever the extra expense
is, it’s worth it.