I saw three movies last weekend which have an obvious thematic link: two book-to-screen adaptations - one high, one lowbrow; and Adaptation, which I had already seen once, which is about book-to-screen adaptations, high and lowbrow.
First came Philip Noyce's The Quiet American. (Is Graham Green highbrow? Upper-middle at least.) It's no The Third Man, but it's a fine film. One thing it has in common with The Third Man is that it's pretty heavy-handed allegory. And yet the characters - who you would expect to be forced to stand in awkward poses and hold them, this being heavy-handed allegory - are living, breathing and psychologically complex. But a few cracks show from the strain of making them Stand For Things.
The movie's release by Miramax was delayed, post-9/11, due to concern it would be perceived as anti-American. And so it is. The titular toned-down Yank is Brendan Frazer as Alden Pyle, an American aid worker in 1950's Vietnam. On the surface he is (what else?) dim but energetic and most likely to succeed. Good-hearted and heart-breakingly earnest and incapable of apprehending the subtle complications of the decaying colonial situation if you drove them through his body at knife-point. (Oops. Gave away the ending. But it comes near the beginning anyway.) As I was saying: standard-issue, big, cuddly George of the Jungles of Southeast Asia. But under the surface he is ... a CIA agent who, at the behest of an obscure utilitarian calculus, is smuggling explosives to an aspiring tinpot dictator, General Thé, who is using them to blow up lots of innocent civilians for no apparent reason.
There's also a love triangle at whose corners sit Michael Caine - who plays an aging Michael Caine playing a jaded British journalist in 1950's Vietnam - and a sultry Vietnamese beauty, played by Do Thi Hai Yen. Very sultry, as you can imagine. It's a good love triangle.
I'm not making this sound good. Actually it was very well done - most intriguing and artful and enjoyable. It's definitely a good movie. But the anti-Americanism is surprisingly tub-thumping, given that it's an American movie. The message is: Americans are big, dangerous apes. They are in the grips of absurdly quaint, conventional social and moral notions. They are embarrassingly quick to fall in love at first sight - with a woman they take it into their thick heads to save from a bad situation, with a country they take it into their thick heads to save from a bad situation. They want to be loved. And they don't mind being hated. A dangerous combination. Caine's Brit journalist, superficially a cad, emerges as the movie's moral center (though admittedly one that jitters and jumps around in ambivalent, trembling fashion.) Because betraying your wife and lying to your mistress is not as bad as blowing up a whole square of women and children and little old men on bicycles for no discernable reason. Translation: European-style dishonest but worldly-wise muddling through works better in the Third World than bloody Yanks with bombs. Not that this proposition is false, necessarily. But it's truth does not follow from the mere fact of Brendan Fraser.
The aforementioned cracks in the movie show along the faultlines of Fraser's character, where you would expect. His goofy front is unconvincingly pasted on to his calculating, sinister interior. There ought to be two characters: the goofy one working for the sinister one. But that would screw up the love story. And of course the attempt to make the one character two-faced is pretty much the point. But it ends up seeming that Fraser's character is just a schizophrenic psychopath, which he really isn't supposed to be. He's just an American; and the strong, melancholy hint is that whoever the CIA sends to replace their man will be punched from the same mold, likely as not.
Funny thing about allegory. It's inherently such an unsatisfactory broad-brush. You prop up some awkward figure. This Stands For That. But of course, trying to prove that American military action abroad is in all cases futile because Brendan Fraser is a lunatic goof is objectively inadequate, as foreign policy analyses go. And of course the movie makers would indignantly protest that they didn't mean to say anything so crude as that. And no doubt that's even true, in a way. And there is something very distinctly American about Fraser's character, which - apart from the cracks - is very intriguingly drawn. And very well acted by Fraser. He represents recognizably American traits gone very, very wrong. A sort of worst-case ammonia-and-bleach mix of things often, though not always, found in an ordinary American home. I guess that's what saves the flick.
Funny coincidence. I just read volume three of Bendis and Oeming's great comic, "Powers" (you were right, Timothy Burke. It's great.) If you aren't familiar, the protagonists are homicide detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim - ordinary mortals in a city full of 'powers'; superheroes and supervillains. (Walker is a former superhero who has mysteriously lost his powers.) The angle is that all the stories are noirish police procedurals involving dead heroes and villains. Whip-crack dialogue. In one frame, Pilgrim and Walker are getting out of the car at the crime scene and she says: "And that, my friend, is why Brendan Fraser sucks." Which I thought was a humorous evocation of an unheard conversation. An initial hazarding of an inherently vague, indemonstable thesis. An inadvisable and probably bored attempt at rebuttal. A tediously hectoring attempt to buttrress the initial thesis. The implicit dialectic of The Quiet American is similarly inadvisable and vague and rather proud of it's sophistication at the very point that it's most crude. But somehow it works OK. You feel that there is a valid point being made in an inadvisable way, despite it all.
Brendan Fraser doesn't suck. He's a good actor who has been is several good movies now. Gods and Monsters was great, in fact. Must the albatross of Encino Man hang about his thick neck forever?
The low-brow adaptation I watched was Dreamcatcher, adapted from the Stephen King novel I haven't read; directed by Lawrence Kasdan and co-screenwritten by Kasdan and William "I've written a lot of crap, but I also wrote The Princess Bride" Goldman. Stephen King, of course, writes 800-page monsters about monsters. And he has the knack for sort of salving and massaging the absurdities of his plots in various now familiar ways: repetitive quotations of Ramones lyrics; darkly twinkling catches of nursery rhymes. Probably you've read a few yourself and could tick off his more or less obvious tricks on the fingers of six or seven hands hideously erupting out of a writhing, hideous form. I read so many Stephen King novels by the time I was 15 years old that I can really never react badly to Stephen King. He is a childhood friend for whom I have enormous reserves of affection and good-will. And I really think he has many good features as a writer. He's an original voice in a lot of ways. A few - a very few - of his books will stand the test of time and be remember 200 years from now as classics of the fantastic fiction genre. (Not, for example, The Tommyknockers, which it is my bizarre fate to have read four times. Once. Then once in a cabin, then once on a long plane flight, then once on a long train ride. Whenever I'm stuck for hours it's there mocking me with its enormity and the fact that there is, for whatever reason, nothing else to read. Strange fact about my life.)
And in a 90-minute movie there simply is not time for all the massaging of absurdity that must be achieved to make Mr. King's magic work. There's a specific point, in Dreamcatcher, about 70 minutes in, when the whole thing just palpably collapses in on its dark self. Information about the plot ceases to be able to escape the silver screen event horizon of its dense being. Tom Sizemore plays the army colonel who is having something incomprehensible explained to him at the instant that all explanations fail. And he has this expression on his face which could be a) his character's response to the situation, invasion of the earth, so forth; b) Sizemore's response to his situation. Hard to say. It would be sort of funny if they released a DVD commentary, and we heard William Goldman say, "... And here's where we decided that this turd was as shiny as it was going to get; and we knocked off polishing it and went for drinks."
It's about four friends who saved a fifth friend (who is fated to be The Redeeming Retard) from bullies, in a classic Stand By Me scene. And now they have magic powers. And every year they go to this cabin. And now there's an alien invasion. And giant planaria with hundreds of rows of teething coming out of people's butts. And Morgan Freeman is insane. And Morgan Freeman is in an attack helicopter. Explosion. Mr. Gray has trapped that red-haired guy in his own mind, but the key files on the retard are safe. And now it just stops making sense, lemme tell you.
It's sort of like Rainman meets Alien, crammed into the body of The Big Chill. Which is funny because Kasdan wrote The Big Chill. It's like he is revisiting that classic Boomer fable from the 80's and cramming it's characters full of planaria with hundreds of rows of teeth. Most inadvisable. And yet. Due to my strange affection for Stephen King, I didn't hate it, though it is objectively the stupidest movie I have seen in a long time.
Adaptation is a transcendent, beautiful affirmation of the human spirit. A paragon of ironic pastoral, in Empson's technical sense. But I'm not going to write about it tonight because it's too beautiful. I'm going to go watch Charlies Angels: Full Throttle.
UPDATE: Cynicism and stupidity are not a nice combination. Therefore, it was a mistake to rent and watch "Charlie's Angel's: Full Throttle".