Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Movie Night #11 Writing is hell.

Today we are going to be looking at writers in cinema. Specifically the trials and tribulations of the process itself, the three films represent three writers from different mediums, a playwright(although his story involves screenwriting), an author, and a screenwriter. Writing has long been a passion of mine, and I like any other pretentious kid who went to college have tried my hand at screenwriting(fail) and short stories(a bit better). Now with this site I have the chance to flex some writing muscles that I haven't used in quite some time, which leads me to this edition of Movie Night. Writing is hard(duh), and also a very internal process, these three films externalize the process and manifest the frustrations and absurdity that goes along with the written word. They are also some of my favorites. Today we will be looking at the following films.

Adaptation - Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman
Barton Fink - Joel and Ethan Coen
Naked Lunch - David Cronenberg

Adaptation is the second collaboration between Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. It tells the story of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter, fresh off of his first big success, trying to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Well, if you've seen the movie you know that that description is a gross oversimplification. This is of course Spike and Charlie here working some amazing absurdist magic. I'll get to his identical twin later but let's see if I can start boiling this down for you. The movie shows Charlie struggling to write this adaptation, and as he's struggling to come to grips with how he's going to write a movie about flowers while not falling into Hollywood stereotypes like "making it about Orchid smuggling, or an Orchid love story," he begins to write himself into the movie, which is of course how the movie we are watching starts. So by the middle of the film we see him writing the movie we have just been watching for about 45 or so minutes. Still there? Well he has a parallel story which is the story of Susan Orlean and her Orchid Thief. I have never read her book, but I am going to assume that the movie starts off with her story being relatively accurate and then as Charlie struggles to pull his movie together her story gets wrapped up in his own crazy mind and becomes something completely fictional. Ok so we also have Charlie's twin brother(not real) who is also writing a screenplay that might as well be the definitive screenplay for every played out idea in the book, from serial killers, to split personalities, to songs being sung, to man vs. horse. Still there? good.

So what's going on? Well like the rest of the movies on this list this film is about the struggles of the writing process. Here Kauffman is specifically attacking his own insecurities with his talent. His "brother" Donald is a physical metaphor of everything he's afraid of becoming. He knows he has reached some sort of success and does not want to become a typical screenwriting writing heist flicks and murder mysteries, he just wants to write a film about flowers "nobody's ever written a film about flowers." Donald attends cheesy screenwriting courses, follows strict guidelines, including the third act denouement without even knowing what it means. Charlie spends the whole film trying to make sure he stays as far away from these pitfalls as possible, and we see his internal struggle as he can't seem to figure out how to get a screenplay out of these flowers. The moment he has a breakthrough and begins writing the film we've been watching is a moment of self-reflexive perfection. Spike Jonze is such an intelligent director, and his visual style can be so understated. He often utilizes a messy mise en scene, to mirror the pysche's of his characters. We see it a lot in Being John Malkovich, and it is used again here especially in the Kauffman household. Nothing is ever crisp and clean, rather a house that looks lived in. So when Kauffman has his breakthrough Jonze keeps the scene localized to his room. We see Kauffman and his imagination run wild with Jonze use of stock footage. Jonze presents the imagination of a writer with quick cuts and random images, in a way that shows how to properly evolve a music video aesthetic.

Now we see that Kauffman is playing with the strength of a writer and his/her relationship to reality. The writer is able to mold and shape the reality that the viewer sees. Here we see Kauffman paint a rather unattractive and overweight version of himself(I've met Kauffman the guy is deifnitely not overweight....nor is he as tall as Nick Cage....the hair is pretty spot on) because this is his own self deprecating view of himself. He creates a brother out of his imagination and has him represent everything he hates about Hollywood. By making him his identical twin we see that he fears he soon will have to succumb to the standard Hollywood stereotypes. By the end we see that he continually struggles to get his word on to the page and begins to turn to his brother for help. This is where the film just manages to ratchet up the genius(or perhaps he is giving in just like he is afraid of) So in the film Kauffman asks his brother for help with the screenplay, and thus begins the brothers on an adventure film. They become "detectives" of sorts searching out Orlean and stumbling upon Orlean and her Orchid Thief using the orchids as a drug. The two have fallen in love and now have become Orchid Smugglers. There is a chase and Donald gets killed as a result. The brilliance lies in Kauffman really bending reality as he brings these two stories together. Obviously Kauffman never stumbled upon Orlean and had this huge tragedy occur. This is Kauffman writing as his twin brother, using all of those stereotypes that Kauffman mentioned in the beginning of the film. So we see him ask his brother for help, then the movie we are watching begins to become the part of the movie that "Donald" wrote. Confused yet? Think I'm over examining it? well maybe, but I stand by my argument. Kauffman peppers his film with commentary on the Hollywood system, from his agent loving his brother's derivative script for its "amazing structure," to Brian Cox delivering an awesome speech on screenwriting and "god help you if you use voiceover," but I'll save in depth conversation of those for a later time. Kauffman has nothing to worry about. His films are anything but derivative, the last shot of the film whether written by Kauffman or created by Jonze shows just how powerful a screenwriter can be. In a big overwhelming city full of big buildings flowers can still grow. Hollywood or not, Kauffman can still create works of genius and he does time after time.

The next film is Barton Fink from the Coens. This film takes a similar theme "the struggles of a writer working in Hollywood" and goes a different way with it. Here we have a playwright who has been tapped by a Hollywood studio to come out to Los Angeles to write a wrestling picture...but the BARTON FINK way. So while Adaptation was much more about the writer's own insecurities about his talent, this film is much more about the writers struggle to work against outside forces. Barton Fink is a successful playwright who enjoys the "truth" and "honesty" of his work in New York and is constantly pushing against this job of his to write a Hollywood picture about wrestling. It is this conflict that creates the drama in the movie. This movie is about what it takes to be a writer. Here Barton Fink is in a Hotel that for all said purposes is Hell, complete with a bellhop that rises from the underground. The hotel is cavernous, dark and his room is without definition and gloomy save for a cheesy picture that you would find at Ross. This is an externalization of Fink's feelings about being a screenwriter. He feels trapped and forced to write what he considers to be low culture. He constantly says he is interested in the common man and wants to create a new theater, but in order to do so he needs to engage in some sort of success out in Hollywood. There is great juxtaposition between his hotel,dark and dreary, and that of the studio lot and the studio head's home, which is of course beautiful and light and full of energy. It is the plight of the writer to scrape the depths to find inspiration and bring it to those on high. We encounter a William Faulkneresque character who has "made it" but along the way has lost all sense of dignity, now little more than a stumbling drunk and emotional mess. If you go along with the Faustian themes in the story then the Faulkner character is a foreshadow of Fink's future. He could be successful, but at a high cost.

Anyone who has seen the film knows we cannot discuss the film without talking about John Goodman's Charlie. So is he Satan or not? Well I think that's essentially missing the point, although I suppose arguments can be made either way. Rather he represents the common man that Barton insists that he wants to write about. So while Barton struggles in one room trying to get his thoughts on paper his supposed inspiration is right next door. Charlie even makes a lot of racket and still Barton fails to notice that everything he "wants" to write about is right next door. Charlie's best line is "I could tell you some stories." FLAT OUT telling Barton I am what you want to write about and I could tell you what the common man is, yet still Barton in his pretentious personality fails to realize that and continues to bang his head against the wall in frustration as he searches out other muses. This of course leads to the final showdown where Goodman goes on a rampage of murder(I think) and burns the hallway yelling I WILL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND. Only now does he get Barton's attention and through suffering and loss Barton is able to write what he feels is his best work, which is of course rejected by the studio head.

This film is overloaded with symbolism, from muses dying, to Goodman's Charlie, to the Hotel itself, to boxes that may or may not have human heads in them. The Coen's are brilliant men and have created such a rich depiction of the hell that writers go through in order to push through the process and create something that they are proud of. Like any good piece of literature, you can pull something different each time you watch this film and interpret it how you see fit. Maybe Charlie really is Satan, maybe the last thirty minutes are a dream sequence, maybe Barton was killed too. Maybe Barton never made it to Los Angeles in the first place. You can argue all of this. This is writer's block on the screen, and the Coen's take it to an absurd extreme of what it takes to breakthrough. While Kauffman's film was about one man's insecurities about his own talent, this film is about one man's sense of confidence failing him when asked to rise to the occasion.

The last film on here is Naked Lunch from David Cronenberg. This film is an "adaptation" in the loosest possible terms of the book of the same name from William S Burroughs. The book, long thought to be unadaptable is a collection of "bits" from Burroughs and plays with reality blending in and out of settings and characters that creates an absurdist puzzle of dementedly beautiful language. So how would that play onscreen? Well Cronenberg has decided to takes pieces from the book and the life of Burroughs and has created his own Frankenstein's Monster of a film about a bug exterminator who kills his wife and is revealed to be a sleeper agent who has apparently completed his mission. He is then tasked with fleeing to Interzone to complete his reports(which become the book Naked Lunch) and finds himself reporting to a typewriter who asks him to find the elusive Dr Benway who is creating a narcotics ring with the guts from a centipede and jizm from Mugwumps. Got it? Ok well most of that is all a drug induced delusion on the part of the author Bill.

So while the previous two are different takes on working within Hollywood, this film deals with the near insanity one gets put through in order to create literary gold, and just how dangerous that line is to walk. Bill's friends, representations of Ginsberg and Kerouac, tell him he needs to get out of Interzone, but only after he finishes the book. So he needs to stay in his self induced hell in order to complete his masterpiece, but there is no need to stay in these delusions longer than necessary.

At the beginning of the film Bill tells his friends to exterminate all reality in order to write. That is exactly what happens over the course of the film. We see him fall more and more into drug use, and the crazier the drugs(by the end he is taking jizm out of phallic tentacles of giant insects that double as typewriters), the more intense his hallucinations and the better the work is.

The metaphor of Bill being a secret agent in a world of typewriter secret agents, and talking centipedes, is a statement on the dangers of the creative process. Typewriters morph into sexual beings, and humans become insects and rip apart others and we see just how powerful the writer can be. They need to be able to exist in this crazy world of interzone and navigate the fields of the mind in order to create literary perfection. Ian Holm is a man who has a great affinity for typewriters. Giving them personality and character traits insisting that one typewriter will yield more creative results than the other. This is a great statement on the relation between writer and tool. There needs to exist a symbiotic relationship between the two and Cronenberg in typical fashion brings his sexual obsession to this relationship. Holms dedication to typewriters is a nod to a writer of times past who insists they need a typewriter and refuse to use any new tool(such as a computer) I have definitely met professors like this at school and their undying devotion mirrors Holm's in eerie fashion, even calling them by their model number much like Holm does. I doubt any of my professors have dipped their hands in the typewriters vagina like Bill does here but hey you never know. Bill, of course, is willing to take whatver steps necessary to write, and moves on to the newest big thing which is the head of an insect that spews out heroin...more or less.

Cronenberg's film is as undefinable as Burroughs' book. He creates an absurdist fever dream on the mind of a writer in the middle of his writing process. Playing with reality and delusion as much as Burroughs does, we are left with an incredible puzzle that is perhaps unsolvable. He shows us the mental anguish that writing can have on someone, how one brings their life into the story, such as Bill's dead wife appearing in Interzone. So at the end of all of this what can we take away? Well like I said in the beginning....writing is hard....duh. But pushing through it will often lead to sublime pieces of written art.


One last thought - Bart and his friends go see Naked Lunch in the episode where Bart gets a fake ID. Nelson has perhaps a better description of the film than I could ever write. After walking out the theater Nelson looks up at the title and says "I can think of two things wrong with that title"....wise words my bullying friend.

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