Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Curious Adaptation

(Note: Potential spoilers, depending on your definition.)


Last week, I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on its opening night. As much as I love film, this was a rarity for me. My excitement stemmed from very hazy memories of enjoying the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story, which I read while in high school. The film version, directed by David Fincher, was very well made, and I was tempted to take the film at face value. However, my curiosity got the better of me--I decided to go online and re-read the original source. Now, with the story fresh in my head, I'm torn between my enjoyment of the film and my (possibly ill-founded?) annoyance at the major deviations between the story and the adaptation.


Naturally, it's understood that every adaptation cannot be one hundred percent faithful to a book or story, and this was a necessity in the case (no pun) of Benjamin Button. Fincher and screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord had to stretch a few pages into a feature-length film. For the most part, the basic themes are the same--how would someone react, adapt, and live life knowing that he/she is aging in reverse? While this question might seem more philosophical than anything, the story and the film progress naturally. Benjamin has no choice but to accept his fate, and the curious assumption is that middle-age is best, no matter which direction you're heading.


The differences between the story and film are equal parts inspired and unneccessary. The film is set in New Orleans as opposed to Baltimore, with continuous flash-forwards to the present deathbed of Benjamin's love, Daisy (originally Hildegarde, played by Cate Blanchett). This simple name change is puzzling. Is Daisy sexier than Hildegarde? Is it a cheapened homage to The Great Gatsby? In the story, Benjamin falls out of love as he grows "younger," with Hildegarde aging naturally. In the film, they do grow apart, only to be reconnected years later. The setting change also provides a needless backstory of Hurricane Katrina, which gets closer in the present film narrative as Benjamin's story advances. In my mind, this provides no additions to the story, not even a metaphorical one. However, partly related to the setting, the film does boast excellent castings of black actors playing black citizens. Yes, it's a very rose-colored look at 1920s Southern life, and yes, Benjamin's adoptive mother (the wonderful Taraji P. Henson) is more or less a servant. However, the film makes use of black actors and extras because they're people, and not because the script or scenes call for black actors. This is a small step in the direction that people like Spike Lee have been arguing for for years.

I could go on with more potential criticisms of the film/story differences, but I'd like to close with some praises. The production design by Donald Graham Burt is stunning, especially combined with the cinematography by Claudio Miranda. The early scenes feels like old photographs, with dimmed hues and lots of faded brown and beige backgrounds (these descriptions would be much better with DVD screencaps). The overall atmosphere "clears up," so to speak, as the decades advance. In one of the best examples, the 1960s scenes have a definite 1960s film cinematography feel. Also, it's always great to applaud the work of Brad Pitt. While this isn't close to being his best acting effort, I still feel that he's grossly underrated as an actor, since most of the focus seems to be on his personal life. Looking past the makeup and special effects, he does an engrossing job with what he has...that is, he does his best to incorporate the emotions of his various ages without going over the top. It's a nod to his versatility that he can show excellent range where there's the potential to have none.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Words and Image

In my attempt to eventually finish the Hunter S. Thompson canon (which is roughly halfway finished, give or take a few titles), I recently read Kingdom Of Fear. I had been planning to devote a post to Thompson for quite some time, and as I read the book, this realization struck me: writing about his writing might be very difficult. Someone like Thompson can be so clouded by his/her popular image that the actual output can be lost in the shuffle. This can happen often, depending on the writer. As talented as they were as writers, it's easy to simply visualize Jack Kerouac roaming around the country and F. Scott Fitzgerald throwing his lavish parties. With Hunter S. Thompson, the Raoul Duke/Johnny Depp-popularized mythology can take center stage quite suddenly, overshadowing the talent that made him popular in the first place. It's almost a Catch-22 (another literary idea which overshadows its origins, as Jonathan Franzen mentioned).

As much as I love Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and The Rum Diary, I prefer reading the many essay collections written by Thompson. For one, it's one of my favorite mediums. Also (I'm sure this has been said numerous times), Thompson was one of the greatest essayists ever, even if the more appropriate term is "journalist." I imagine that non-fiction writing teachers may try to discourage students from the gonzo style--immersing themselves in the article from which they should remain impartially detached. The beauty of Thompson's life (based on his works) is that he had no choice but to be involved in a story. However, no matter how immersed he was, there's always the unspoken understanding (at least in my opinion) that he remained detached. This is even true when he explains the events that led to the "99 Day Trial," in which he could have been convicted of drug possession and sexual assault:

"I had been making cranberry and tequila, because the margarita mix had run out. I was in that kind of mood. Let's all have a few margaritas. And she--the sot--she belted them down. We all did, no doubt; that's what it was all about. Some margaritas to celebrate...We were on about the third jug in the blender, or fourth jug, or fifth perhaps, when we switched to cranberry juice, and she had been getting louder and more randy. She was making open cracks to Cat, asking 'Who are you to Hunter?' She grabbed me and said 'Who's this girl? Why is that other girl here? We don't need her around.'
Shortly after Tim left, I reached for the phone and told the Witness, 'Let's call a goddamn taxi for you.' As I dialed the 'T'--in 925-TAXI--she rushed over, knocking the phone down, and cut me off. It was a quick, startling movement. She leaped, surprisingly fast for a rhino, from five or six feet away (Thompson 140-141)."

Yes, at first glance, it's trademark Thompson: colorful events accompanied by mind-altering substances. But read it carefully. In a paragraph and a half, he's described a scene with journalistic, precise details, with slight humorous embellishment ("suprisingly fast for a rhino"). Even though he's personally included in the events, he never dominates to the point of being selfish or going away from the main point of the essay (granted, this is a very brief citation from a much larger piece). In the age of everyone writing memoirs, it's easy to say that almost every published work by Thompson is a memoir (per se), but it's honest journalism at heart. As he's quoted in the forward to Kingdom of Fear: "I am the most accurate journalist you'll ever read (xvi)."

As usual, politics come up frequently in the book. This will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Thompson, but he was not a fan of certain presidents (Nixon, the Bushes, et. al) or conservative ideologies:

"The news is bad today, in America and for America. There is nothing good or hopeful about it--except for Nazis, warmongers, and rich greedheads--and it is getting worse and worse in logarithmic progressions since the fateful bombing of the World Trade Towers in New York. That will always be a festering low-watermark in this nation's violent history (333)."

Passages like these reaffirm my belief that Thompson was among the greatest American patriots in the written language. It is possible to criticize politicians and government actions and still be patriotic. He was a staunch supporter of the first, second, and fourth Amendments, and in his writing, no matter how blistering his critiques of the U.S. government get, there's always a glimmer of optimism that things can improve. I'm sure that if he were alive today, he'd be cheering the departure of Bush and the arrival of Obama. However, he'd be just as hard on the new President has he was on the previous ones, even the ones he supported. This post might be rambling a little, but the beauty of Thompson's work is that it touches on so many themes and events, and the essay collections are next to impossible to "review" (not that a review was my intention).

Mahalo.

Work Cited:
Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. Copyright 2003 by Gonzo International Corp.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Casual Friday--Poetry VI

I'd like to begin this post with this poem, entitled Collections.
"Tuesday, normally the least important of the seven
The morning is windy and rainy, not hard, but enough to do the job.
The weekend was excessive, we lived like aloof royalty--
food eaten lustily, drink guzzled lustier. Our sweaters
were regal vestments, our dirty shoes were cobbled by peasants.
Monday rose, as did we, a mindless bustle of showerheads being flipped,
teeth hastily brushed,
the clothes and towels forming an unglamorous heap by the wall.
Tuesday morning--
The sun still hides as I shift out of bed to put the containers out for the collectors.
They collect what we want to leave behind.
I grumble as I drag out the compost bin. A collection of shredded receipts,
orange peels and moldy bread.
I think of the less fortunate, several days too late.
That bread would have been consumed, some children right now would cry for an orange peel.
Something, anything.
I drag out the trash bin. Aluminum foil, food wrappings, empty lighters.
The items cannot be categorized. In due time they will join their brethren:
the unidentifiable landfill mass of items no longer needed.
The final bin is recycling, an activity based on guilt.
Fifty years ago, everything was thrown away together, to be hauled off.
Never to be heard from again. Today we recycle,
a perverse "oops" offered to the world with a shrug.
The collectors take the items a few hours later, but not for personal gain.
Everything is separated, and we never see the likes of them again.
Until we start collecting again on Wednesday."
This is a pretty awful piece, and I'm actually pleased to note that I'm the author, since it exemplifies an excellent article recently published in the November 27th issue of The Stranger. In it, Paul Constant bemoans the sad offerings of Seattle's public poetry works, everything from the "Poet Populist" to "Poetry on Buses" (a similar idea used to be done for Chicago's Transit Authority, entitled "Poetry in Motion"--I cannot decide which is worse, title-wise: Seattle's laughingly minimalist description, or the feeble attempt at a lame poetry title for Chicago's program). Constant's complaints are that, even with the best intentions (to expose poetry to Seattle citizens who otherwise would never read it), these types of public programs celebrate bad poetry, written by bad poets:
"Karen Finneyfrock is a rare example of a slam poet who writes excellent poetry; for every one of her, there are a thousand people who should be ashamed to share their work with others (31)."
Given Constant's claim, why did I open this essay with one of my poor efforts? Even though I'm sharing it with whomever reads this blog regularly or may stumble across it, I know full well that it's not a great piece. I'm not a poet, I don't think I ever will be, and I would never dream of openly sharing something that I know to be bad, whether it be at a poetry reading or as a submission to a public arts program. I wrote the above poem while riding a bus to downtown Seattle, mainly to pass the time, and because I had the idea for it, since it was trash day. I'm only using it as an example since I never intended it to be read by anyone else. Above all, as a writer, I know I have an eye for my own production--that is, I know that's ready to be shared, what needs to be edited before being shared, and what should never see the light of day. Constant cites a few snippets of what he deems to be bad poetry, some of which can lead people to assume stereotypes of "poets:"
"...[Ananda Selah Osel's poetry]...is the kind of self-entitled Henry Rollins fuck-the-system bullshit that automatically makes everyone tired of angry young men and their viciously thin poetry. And his second-place finish (at the "Poet Populist" reading) means his dreadful work has an implicit endorsement from the city (31)."
Ouch. I'm not at all familiar with Osel's work, so I cannot readily agree with Constant's assessment. However, it's refreshing to read a take on a program like this written from the point of view of someone who obviously reads and understands poetry. I can only imagine that a City Hall press release would state the exact opposite, probably under the assumption that all poetry is good and worthy to be read. Public arts programs have their hearts in the right place, but the focus should be on quality, not on quantity.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Evil Geniuses

Last month, in an attempt to brush up on philosophy texts that have flown under my radar, I read Martin Heidegger's Poetry Language Thought. I remembered that his other works were touched upon briefly in some of my college courses, and recent research on him brought up something that I had totally forgotten about--his link to Nazism. I don't know the full history of his relationship to that ideology (save for some very generic bullet points), I do know that some of his supporters attempted to soften the blow of such a connection. There are two very distinct points of view at play here: one side will say that in Europe during World War II, the choice was very clear, that one could choose to superficially "accept" Nazism or lose their well-being (or life) otherwise. The other side will say that any acceptance equals guilt, regardless of whether or not a person was trying to save his or her own life. My point is that Heidegger wrote some of the most influential philosophy texts in history, yet will always be linked to one of the most horrendous "philosophies" in history as well. It's a staggering dynamic--how can an outside observer balance someone's contributions along with someone's evils, especially with something as evil as Nazism? This being said, had Heidegger been a fictional character, he very well would have been one of the many composites in Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature In the Americas (first published in English in 2008).

I went into reading this Bolano text trying to be as impartial as possible, given the fact that I was still feeling the amazing awe of The Savage Detectives. Nazi Literature In the Americas is a vastly different work, both in themes and length. Instead of providing us with hundreds of pages devoted to exploring the lives of imaginary, generally admirable (though faulted) writers, Bolano writes very brief biographical sketches of writers from North, Central, and South America, all of whom (explicitly or not) are connected to Nazism or Nazi sympathies. While these are fictionalized descriptions, readers cannot help but get caught up in Bolano's attention to detail, describing, in precise detail, the writers and lifestyles of these artists. In the same sense of The Savage Detectives, I found myself admiring the prodigious outputs and hedonistic tendencies, since the idea of Nazism is not pointed out on every page. At times, it came as a suckerpunch, nodding along with the lifestyles, only to be reminded of the sometimes latent theme of evil. This is where my introduction on Heidegger comes into view--the writers in Nazi Literature In the Americas are brilliant, yet the idea is that a seriously faulted ideology is lurking below the surface.

Bolano also employs the "dust-fucker" style of comparisons (for the origins and explanations of this term, click here). Again, as evil as Nazism is, some of the writers in the novel are more extreme than others--in short, Bolano has characters who are even worse Nazis than others. Take these passages, for example:

"The failure of her marriage plunged Luz into despair. She took to drinking in dives and having affairs with some of the most unsavory individuals in Buenos Aires. Her well-known poem "I Was Happy With Hitler," misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike, dates from this period (21)."

"...[Borda's] mere existence, in short, brought out the basest, most deeply hidden instincts in the people whose paths he crossed, for one reason or another, in the course of his life. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that any of this demoralized him. In his Diaries he blames the Jews and usurers for everything (109)."

In the hands of a lesser writer, a book such as this could have merely turned into a catalogue of depraved individuals. With Bolano, the degrees of repulsion are almost scientific. As with the two cited examples above, a reader acknowledges that the two fictional writers have ideological faults, but have to acknowledge that the writing of a poem is a "lesser evil" than a blatant written hatred of an entire people.

At the end of the novel, Bolano stunningly crafted a detailed bibliography of the writers, including ones not described in the book. In addition to admiring the minute detail, I was taken aback by the bibliography's title: "Epilogue For Monsters." With three words, any earlier rationalization is thrown away, since every party is guilty. The effect is very similar to the final line of James Wright's poem Lying In a Hammock On William Duffy's Farm In Pine Island, Minnesota: "I have wasted my life." Everything that comes before it, while essential, is overtaken by a single line. This literary skill, especially compared with the vastness of The Savage Detectives, reaffirms my belief that Bolano is one of most important writers of the past twenty years. I cannot wait to take on his final work, 2666.

Work Cited:
Bolano, Roberto. Nazi Literature In the Americas. Copyright 2008 by the Heirs of Roberto Bolano. Translation copyright 2008 by Chris Andrews.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

50th Post: Odds and Ends

I'm a little behind on some of this month's essays, so I thought I'd have some relaxed fun with this post. I'm pleased to note that this is my fiftieth post on Chicago Ex-Patriate, and since I don't see myself commemorating every "milestone" post, this should be a one-and-done affair. However, I already have a plan for this blog's one year anniversary in February, but that is down the line. Also, on a personal note, I'm very pleased with how my writings and contributions are taking shape. I'm still not as "quality consistent" as I'd like to be, but when I started this blog, I simply had no idea where it would be going, content-wise. Thanks to everyone for their readings, comments, and support. My network here is small, but I'm grateful for the impressive writers and bloggers who support this project. The new year will hopefully bring more maturation and variety to my writings.

I don't remember where, but someone once linked an article listing the signs of a bad blog. One of the signs was the inclusion of lists: best ofs, top tens, and so forth. However, some of the blogs that I regularly read have posted these kinds of lists, and the quality was just fine. So, in keeping with the idea of "fifty," I'm attempting a combined list of my "Fifty Essentials," whether they be books, albums, or films. I hesitate to call these my favorites, since that list always fluctuates. However, these are fifty titles that I feel have shaped and influenced me to this point. Enjoy.

1.) Le Samourai by John-Pierre Melville (film)
2.) How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen (book)
3.) In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (album)
4.) No Country For Old Men by Joel and Ethan Coen (film)
5.) The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson (book)
6.) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco (album)
7.) Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino (film)
8.) The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano (book)
9.) Hail To the Thief by Radiohead (album)
10.) Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese (film)
11.) The Rush For Second Place by William Gaddis (book)
12.) Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (album)
13.) Glengarry Glen Ross by James Foley (film)
14.) The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (book)
15.) Picaresque by the Decemberists (album)
16.) Amelie by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (film)
17.) Choke by Chuck Palahniuk (book)
18.) Animals by Pink Floyd (album)
19.) The General by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton (film)
20.) The Middle Mind by Curtis White (book)
21.) Z by My Morning Jacket (album)
22.) From Here to Eternity by Fred Zinnemann (film)
23.) White Noise by Don DeLillo (book)
24.) Abbey Road by the Beatles (album)
25.) The Big Sleep by Howard Hawks (film)
26.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy (book)
27.) Give Up by the Postal Service (album)
28.) Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau (film)
29.) Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman (book)
30.) Come On Feel the Illinoise! by Sufjan Stevens (album)
31.) Le Cercle Rouge by Jean-Pierre Melville (film)
32.) Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace (book)
33.) Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (album)
34.) Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (film)
35.) Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor (book)
36.) 13 Songs by Fugazi (album)
37.) The Lives Of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (film)
38.) Bloodcurdling Tales Of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft (book)
39.) Blacklisted by Neko Case (album)
40.) Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas by Terry Gilliam (film)
41.) Bambi Vs. Godzilla by David Mamet (book)
42.) The Mysterious Production Of Eggs by Andrew Bird (album)
43.) All the Real Girls by David Gordon Green (film)
44.) Dubliners by James Joyce (book)
45.) Class Clown by George Carlin (album)
46.) Dog Day Afternoon by Sidney Lumet (film)
47.) White Teeth by Zadie Smith (book)
48.) The End Of Love by Clem Snide (album)
49.) Cat On a Hot Tin Roof by Richard Brooks (film)
50.) A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (book)

On a final note, I normally have a seething hatred for music videos which are literal interpretations of the given song, whether these videos involve the band or are made by a random student filmmaker and posted on YouTube. However, I stumbled across this video for the Decemberists' O Valencia! and was quite pleased. Yes, it's a literal interpretation, but I found it amazingly enjoyable. Perhaps this is due to the cinematography or the dark humor, or possibly both: