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Seen: 2003.01.20 (!)   ¶   Reviewed: 2003.05.13


Where the hell have I been? Procrastinating is where I have been. I know I have some 200 readers for each of these reviews. But it is a slog to write them. Really, it is no such thing. I merely lapse into a certain sequence of events:

  1. See the movie.
  2. Head home and watch TV, or have edamame and yam tempura maki at Ho Su Bistro and then do so.
  3. Forget all about it until the next movie comes along, by which time it seems too burdensome to catch up.

Except that, by repeating this process four full times, I have left myself with such a backlog that I have actually filled my original Moleskine® notebook. I had to buy another one, and I wasn’t even caught up yet!

I hate my capacity to procrastinate.

Adaptation: Le film

What I do not understand is how Charlie Kaufman ever got his scripts read. They’ll flunk you right out of school for a typo. They’ll string you up like Syd Mead (heartily lampooned in Adaptation) for violating the “rules” of structure.

But the rules of structure simply are not important all the time. They’re important to bad writers, or to writing factories like Ron Bass (and his Ronettes). But there’s a lot of things conventional structure is not good for. Atmosphere, for example: A movie that exists to impart a feeling (Solaris is one of them), or a film revolving around ideas or philosophy (again, Solaris) cannot be fairly pigeonholed into three-act structure.

I’ve already stated that I own Screenwriting Updated by Aronson. It is the only book on screenplay structure I have read that did not fill me with rage at its condescension and contempt for the reader, who is invariably assumed to be some reject with no existing screenwriting skill. Aronson manages to contort her particular theory of screenplay structure – which, I must say, is rather persuasive – to explain Pulp Fiction. She claims that, as if holographically, each storyline within Pulp Fiction itself embodies traditional structure, which explains why mixing and matching them actually works.

The competing explanation, found in our dear British friends the BFI’s book about the film, holds that Tarantino “structured” the movie to fit the way a child of the television age experiences syndicated TV series: Out of sequential order, surfed from channel to channel. Now, which rings true to you – structure within structure or channel-surfing?

Both, probably.

And thus the unique skill of Charlie Kaufman. He isn’t merely off the scale, he’s off a scale he invented himself and solely inhabits.

He’ll also bet the farm. What if John Malkovich had turned down Being John Malkovich? As it is, in Malkovich Malkovich (“Malkovich!”) is seen managing his own affairs in his swank Paris apartment. One presumes a similar scene had taken place when the Kaufman script was brought upstairs by the concierge. Kaufman is meta without smirk or irony. He is sincerely meta.

Instead of writing a movie with the structure of channel-surfing through reruns of The Rockford Files, a movie so gloriously pleasurable because nothing in it is original or authentic, Kaufman writes films about cinema.

(So why did I never make it out to see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, also written by him? Accessible movie reviews are hardly alone among the victims of procrastination.)

Among my many petty hatreds is the form of the capsule movie review, whose rhythms and tics could be readily reproduced by computer software and which take up half the space necessary to actually explain the film. The capsule movie review of Adaptation would claim it is the story of identical-twin wannabe screenwriters, one blocked and neurotic, the other derivatively prolific and carefree.

But that would constitute the special breed of factually-accurate lie that is the preserve of the capsule review. Blow Up is inevitably summarized as “A photographer in swinging ’60s London investigates a dead body he discovers in a photo background.” That actually happens – though “investigate” would be a generous description – but the film is actually all about the caustic temperament and self-delusion of a hollow young hipster. For this fashion photographer, making the scene makes up for his own lacking make-up.

People scorn the heavily symbolic final scene of Bright Lights, Big City (swapping shades for a loaf of bread), but there as in Blow Up, the lesson is: The projected self is not the only one that needs tending. Your internal life will catch up to you if you do not cultivate it. In Blow Up, the lesson is foreshadowed by a dead body that appears to be there but left no on-site traces, and reinforced by a tennis match with an imaginary ball. When you look inside yourself, is there a there there or isn’t there?

Adaptation is not in fact a movie about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman. Such a screenwriter plays a role in the film, but Adaptation is a film that fulfills the maxim that ontogeny begets phylogeny (the development of the individual mirrors the development of the species). The movie Adaptation follows the path of the development of the movie Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation is trying to write. The events of the movie Adaptation follow the same path as the movie the onscreen Charlie is trying to write.

While Charlie and his brother Donald and their agents and Donald’s girlfriend and the Syd Mead manqué debate what should happen in Charlie’s and Donald’s screenplays, what happens to them makes an actual movie out of Adaptation. We watch the occurrence of everything they debate writing down. We watch called into being the events Charlie and Donald argue about calling into being. But not the same events; that would be ironic. Parallel events, structurally-similar events.

Charlie gets writer’s block and wants to write something noncommercial, while Donald is a flat-out hack who grafts into place every cheap commercial plot-point formula he’s ever seen. But while Charlie frets and Donald paints the town red, noncommercial-style events actually happen (a May–December romance as Susan Orlean crossed the proverbial tracks) that evolve, as cinema has evolved, into action-figure territory (drugrunning, attempted murder, chase sequences).

The movie starts out as a discussion of the literature of screenplays and the internal neuroses of the writer and evolves into an example of the lived experience of characters in a movie.

That’s what happens in the development of a film, isn’t it? (At least the pre-scripted kind.) You start with literature and end up with filmed experience. Here, though, we’ve got an extra level of abstraction: It’s the filmed experience of characters as they are otherwise trying to write down other characters’ filmed experiences.

Maybe Adaptation isn’t a model of the evolution of movies. Maybe just the evolution of movies since Jaws (often, and correctly, cited as the progenitor of what is now too glibly known as the “blockbuster”). But what you’re looking at in Adaptation is an example of that evolution. While they’re talking about it, it separately happens.

Adaptation: A milestone in the history of cinema the film itself illustrates. It’s an understatement to call it a unique work of genius. While not quite an unimaginable concept (one person managed to imagine it), it is nearly so, but also it is a hair short of perfectly realized. Except for the tremendously misguided opening credit sequence (trying for a typographic effect and failing: Next time, call me up first), from start to finish you can’t imagine another way for the movie to behave. Or I could not.

One cannot armchair-quarterback Adaptation. You couldn’t rewrite it to make it better.

(Now, could you write a spinoff comic book or animated series? Could you write Charlie/Donald slash fiction? Now, those are interesting questions!)

Adaptation was “available” with captions, which surprised me. Sony, like several studios now, is being cheap with the accessibility, paying up front for cinema captions that can, after a fashion, be reused in home video. (They cannot – not really. I’m gonna fix that.) Never mind with those horribly expensive audio descriptions, though. And the whole thing applies only to wide releases.

Adaptation had been playing for weeks before it got captioned. Maybe it got moved to wide release. No doubt it was a welcome break for the intellectuals at the Caption Center after the indignities of, say, Eddie Murphy or MIIB.

Theatre experience

Time to add a new section to these reviews. (I could retrofit all the old ones.) Our Theatre Experience this evening was atypically poor, even given the assumption that some horrible thing goes wrong half the time.

Our manageress for the evening is a pretty young thing with a gladhanding manner and a supplicant’s smile. She won’t sleep her way to the top, exactly, but will get there one way or another. She combines the unlikely attributes of obviously being quite smart and slavishly following the rules.

What are the rules tonight? (They’re different every single time.) Tonight, every person signing out a reflector has to be individually signed in and leave ID behind.

First I get her over her obvious reluctance to speak. (“You can talk to me. I can hear.”) How bad would it be if I were deaf? You’d have this doctrinaire corporate suckup preventing you from watching the only movie in town understandable to you, but unable to communicate with you.

I tell her it’s never been like that before (not that it’s ever consistent), and the chance of one of the three of us bailing and leaving the signatory on the hook for a chunk of plastic and steel is nil. (She seems to think that the three of us, despite being acquaintances who have done this captioning thing two dozen times, are, deep down, a criminal element that needs to be controlled.) I was incensed that she would even suggest one of us would betray the other. Does she say this to married couples, too?

She flashes that smile and I’m totally not buying it. And she’s totally not budging, either. I’ve had enough. “Get your manager.”

So the little functionary wanders over. He’s the fella who had triumphantly shown us the heavily inferential newspaper listing that documented a nonexistent MoPixed screening one night. So I go from one corporate policy apologist to another.

I do what I always do (why do I always have to do it? why does it keep happening?): I ask him “To the best of your knowledge, what is the correct procedure?” And tonight, he says it is, in fact, to extract a name, phone number, and ID (no DNA sample?) from everyone.

I send my lads on their way. They stake out seats. I argue with the fonctionnaires, and win. For now.

As I believe the kids say, this shit’s gotta stop.

Caption quality

"New Yorker" and "The New Yorker": Apparently we’ve gone back to this unwise orthograpy for periodical titles. (How do you make it possessive?)

A perfect example of why 7×5-pixel dot-matrix fonts with no descenders are hard to read: You need a new getup looks like You need a new setup given that g and s differ by one tiny pixel.

How’s this for four hard-to-understand words?

(sotto voce):
Mendacious deceit.

But the kicker? That’s exactly what he said and how he said it!

11:55am tomorrow should really be 11:55 A.M. (or AM), don’t you think?

I saw four captions that weren’t centred but without flush left margins. I was told the ideology at the Caption Center is that, despite the ability to set a margin anywhere, including on the right side, they replicate the 1986-era TeleCaption decoder abomination of setting everything flush left.

And that’s it for my notes. I don’t know why, exactly. And half of them are in illegible lead; I think my pencil was running out.

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