Even without the aid of Smell-o-Vision, Charlie Kaufman’s bedroom comes across as dank. A mulchy, humid cleft in the Los Angeles desert, it’s a place where shadows lie thick as the strata of leaves, which fall in clumps from books, magazines and scripts. Botanical specimens might root here, or movie projects–Charlie, a professional writer, is working on a screenplay based on Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief–though of what morphology, you can’t predict. Nothing’s likely to grow normally in this condensation of coffee, sweat and self-abuse.
Masturbation is too neutral a term, self-gratification too positive, for the penitential floggings that Charlie carries out here, steeping himself in his sense of inadequacy before women including Susan Orlean, whom he’s never met. He could have met her–she was lunching in a fancy restaurant one day when he happened to drop by for takeout–but Charlie fled, bobbling the paper bag, after learning of her presence thanks to a beautiful movie executive, about whom he’s also probably flogged himself. I say “probably” because we’ve seen Charlie converse with her. Sweat beads the size of mushroom caps gathered beneath his sparse and kinky hair. He smiled as if at a dog that was sure to bite him. He rocked a little in his chair, as if seized by an atavistic, Eastern European urge to beg help from a God who isn’t in the picture.
If life is a matter of the survival of the fittest, then Charlie must be an evolutionary dead end. But what if life is instead a question of Adaptation (to cite the title of the movie): an individual’s fitting into an environmental niche, or a writer’s carrying into a different medium another writer’s work? Then there might be hope for Charlie. There might even be a point, or an end, to the excruciating, joyless labor that he’s taken on himself.
Adaptation is, in fact, an adaptation of a real bestseller, The Orchid Thief–a plotless, meditative work of nonfiction–and has been written for the screen by the real Charlie Kaufman, who despite his complete absence from the book has made himself into the film’s central character. Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean; and Nicolas Cage, in two performances of contrasting brilliance, plays both the tortured, hypercerebral Charlie and his easygoing twin brother, Donald, whose doubtful existence could not be confirmed at press time, though he does share screenwriting credit. The direction (poised somehow between hyperbolic and deadpan) is by Spike Jonze, whose previous collaboration with Kaufman, Being John Malkovich, perhaps offers a portal into this new picture.
Part of the fun of Being John Malkovich came from a sense of Kaufman’s adventurousness, as he risked getting lost in his own screenplay. Having dreamed up the premise (one of the loopiest in film history), he set about writing without knowing where he might wind up. In Adaptation, Kaufman dramatizes that same situation. He accepted the assignment of turning The Orchid Thief into movie mulch; now he’s written a movie about how he didn’t have a clue how to proceed.
The indignities, the frustrations, the doubts, the coffee breaks: His fictionalized thrashings-about are so hilarious that they gave me an out-of-body experience. And then, in the end, they didn’t. Although Adaptation‘s last act cheekily supplies everything Charlie had claimed he’d never force into The Orchid Thief–hot sex, guns, drugs and a chase scene–I stopped reveling in the joy of invention and felt only a mounting claustrophobia, as the finale shut me irretrievably behind his high, moist forehead. Being John Malkovich was about experiencing, however arbitrarily, the life of another person. Adaptation is about Charlie’s struggle with a Susan Orlean he’s made up for himself, and with a twin who is, well, his double.
Since Kaufman is nothing if not brilliant, he pre-emptively acknowledges this sin, building into Adaptation a critique of the movie’s solipsism. So the pig has wings–which is nothing unusual in an era of self-referential post-everythingism. The marvel is, this pig actually flies more than half the time.
Still, I’m disappointed by that crashing final act. I wonder about the environmental pressure that must bear down on today’s filmmakers as they struggle to adapt, even when they’re as prodigious as Charlie Kaufman.
For example: We now have before us Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, his version of a science-fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem. In 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky made a film of this same book–a great film–which Soderbergh has wisely refused to emulate. Tarkovsky’s Solaris achieves its impact by putting you through something akin to hypnotic induction, or the orchestral prelude to Das Rheingold; it asks you to spend minutes on end watching the waving of tall grasses, or the movement of cars on a highway, until you’ve lost touch with all other thoughts and images and are ready for something new. But no filmmaker working for Twentieth Century Fox can get away with such methods; and so, when Tarkovsky would still be in the marsh, Soderbergh is already rocketing his protagonist toward the planet Solaris.
You’ll notice, though, that Soderbergh uses the trip to mount a little film-historical tribute–and it’s not to Tarkovsky. The reflections gleaming on the curve of a visor, the spaceships falling silently through the void, the screen-filling computer panel with its multicolored complexities: All these are images out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tarkovsky’s Solaris was in effect the Soviet film industry’s answer to Kubrick’s picture. Soderbergh evidently wants to uphold the more familiar Anglo-American model, out of commercial necessity, no doubt, but also from temperament.
In other words, he adapts well. And I can’t fault his Solaris on its own terms. The performances are first-rate–not only George Clooney and Natascha McElhone as the leads, but also Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis in strong supporting roles. The images are crisp and the pacing faultless, as you’d expect with Soderbergh, and the soundtrack (with music by Cliff Martinez) is an environment in itself. So what’s my gripe? Only that Tarkovsky’s Solaris–the only science-fiction movie that’s ever made me feel I’d been somewhere else–ends with a soul-chilling image of alienation and isolation, whereas Soderbergh’s finishes like It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s just as sappy, and just as pleased to be locked into its protagonist’s fantasy.
More solipsism–and just so you don’t think this problem is exclusive to Hollywood, let me mention in passing Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. You may have heard that Michael Caine is terrific in this picture, playing the aging British reporter in 1950s Vietnam. What you’ve heard is true; and Brendan Fraser, done up to look like the young Nelson Rockefeller, is also terrific as the young American spymaster, who combines ingenuousness with a blind, brutal ideology. But by cutting Greene’s novel down to its most basic action, the screenplay (by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan) makes the situations look bare and silly–including the Vietnam War itself, which seems to have been merely the opium dream of an old, horny Brit.
You’d think the process of adaptation would invite an encounter with other minds–the minds of the original authors, if not the people of Vietnam, the creatures of Solaris or the orchid thief of Florida. So why do all three of these movies insist on looking inward? I have no good answer. But I do know it’s time to get outdoors; so let me tell you, at last, about Blackboards.
A product of Iran’s Makhmalbaf Film House–directed and written by young Samira Makhmalbaf, edited and co-written by her father, the glorious Mohsen–Blackboards takes place entirely outdoors, on narrow, precarious paths that run through the mountains of Kurdistan on the Iran-Iraq border. Into this sublime landscape wanders a group of men, each bent under the weight of a blackboard strapped to his back. Does rural Iran really have such itinerant teachers? Or have these characters been dropped in from a Beckett play? All I know is that one of them, Reeboir (Bahman Ghobadi), falls in with a group of boys who carry burdens of their own, smuggling goods across the mountains. In exchange for something to eat, Reeboir says, he’ll teach them to write their names–an offer that has only one taker. Meanwhile, another blackboard-bearer, Said (Said Mohamadi), joins a band of nomads, most of them old men, who are hiking toward their ancestral home in Iraq. Like the boys, the old men are indifferent to instruction; but they propose to pay Said twenty-four walnuts, if he’ll guide them to the border. He accepts; and he also hastens to marry, in an improvised ceremony, the only woman with the band, Halaleh (Behnaz Jafari), a widow traveling with her young son.
We are a long way from the urban, semi-documentary world of Samira Makhmalbaf’s first feature, The Apple. She has now taken us into someplace elemental, desperate, absurd and stunningly beautiful; a place where the people on camera seem to lead timeless lives, without electricity or running water, and yet must contend with off-camera forces equipped with landmines and helicopters. You might think it wrong for art to intrude here, as if a filmmaker could only exploit such people, an audience enjoy only the dishonest pleasure of gaping at them. But that judgment would cut off the Kurds from culture and from other lives; and Makhmalbaf chooses to face these people. She carries into their midst her camera and her blackboards, mediums not only of literacy but of an astonishing message of love. Is literacy inadequate to the situation? Does love fail? You can guess the answer. But you can also see, at the end of this stony, gorgeous film, that the message remains heartbreakingly legible.
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Short Takes: “Films alone do not make a culture resonant,” writes Laurence Kardish of the Museum of Modern Art, “but thinking, writing, and arguing about them, their makers, and their context do. With the disappearance of regularly published film magazines at once serious and popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and with the ascendance of the soundbite masquerading as criticism, writing about movies, especially in America, has become either the expression of a journalist’s bias (hardly the basis for contemplation) or of an editor’s interest in celebrity (which has nothing to do with the film itself)…. Present critical anemia threatens to keep the wan body of American film appreciation bloodless.”
In the hope of warming up that body, MoMA is now publishing Positif: 50 Years, the first anthology in English of reviews from the cantankerously venerable French journal. At its screening facility, the Gramercy Theatre, MoMA is also showing a series titled “Positif Champions: Fifty Years of Cinema,” featuring films that the magazine’s writers have endorsed since the 1950s. The series runs through January 30 and includes pictures by Bergman, Huston, Scorsese, Fassbinder, Resnais, Duras, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jerry Lewis (who will attend the December 28 screening of The Ladies Man). If this magazine reaches you in time, and you’re in New York, you might also want to drop by the Gramercy Theatre on December 7, at 1 pm, for an event featuring Michel Ciment, editor of Positif, in conversation with French and American critics.
Department of Self-Criticism: When I reviewed Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (October 14), calling it a monument, a masterpiece, a singular event in film history, I made a big deal out of a certain close-up of a pair of hands. Now I’ve watched the film again–it opens at last on December 13–and I see I was wrong about that detail. Everything else stands.