Release Date: 2002
Nationality and Language:
Running time: 114 minutes
Distributor and Production Company:
Director; Writer: Spike Jonze; written by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, based loosely on a book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlead
Producer: Edward Saxon, Vincent Landay, Jonathan Demme
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton
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Review: Well, we have a movie title that is a bit of a Latinized word, all right, ending in an “ion,” but the title conveys all. This is a movie not about its original topic but instead reflexively about screenwriting, storytelling, nitpicking the whole issue of movie making as art, and turning the axis on whether screenwriting is really about developing new content or about technical manipulation with material that might otherwise seem pedestrian.
Of course, the movie fascinates me for selfish reasons. Imagine a screenplay for “Do Ask, Do Tell” written recursively as about the process of writing its screenplay. Well, that could be tempting. Here, this is what happened. Charlie Kaufman (who earned fame in 1999 for Being John Malkovich), hired to transfer Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, instead wrote a layered black-comedy-drama about the process of writing the screenplay. Nicolas Cage (playing Charlie) is replicated as a twin screenwriter, his brother already happily and creatively writing horror, about chopping up victims into pieces a little bit at a time (remember Pieces in 1982?) But Charlie himself needs inspiration if he is going to work with somebody else’s agenda. His assignment seems like an exercise in stasis; after all, flowers don’t do much, and like is more about progression than conflict. There is a screenwriting seminar where Charlie is appropriately rebuked. Screenplays must be character-driven and find their conflicts at all subtle levels, and build up to points of recognition. It turns out, of course, that the drug-running in the Florida Everglades offers more opportunity for layered conflict than Charlie first appreciates.
Meryl Streep plays Susan as a “professional staff writer” at the New Yorker who (in this script, at least) has less of her own inspiration and less to say of her own, but she is willing to pal around and sleep with orchid thief John Laroche, who (as played by Chris Cooper) display the most hairless, sloppy, deteriorating white-trash body in the movies today, to the point that Susan hardly seems heterosexually romantic at all. Cage X 2 == remember how lean and mean Cage looks in his earlier movies == has voluntarily taken on what Adam Sandler would call a “fatter role,” his hairy body and thinning pate playing with the stereotype that balding men are more masculine. (Are they?) Here the humor itself has to be physically sloppy and self-effacing, so the kind of ascetic comedy offered by Minnesota actor Jeff Gilson (Great Lakes) could never work here.
Technically, the film is a masterpiece, though I would
have wanted a full wide-screen format to explore the replication of Cage as
well as show the
Given its layered story, the screenplay itself is full of flashbacks, one going back 4 Billion years to the origin of life itself. Plants have feelings, too.
Dangerous Game (1993/1995,
A second example of some layering, although much simpler, is provided by The Shape of Things (2003), from Focus/Universal/Studio Canal/Working Title, from Neil LaBute. There is but a quartet of characters: Adam (Paul Rudd), Jenny (Grethchen Mol), Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), and Phillip (Frederick Weller). The story is structured by the gradual makeover of Adam from an overweight, puffyfaced nerd to a lean loose ladies’ man. The physical transformation is quite striking, accomplished with makeup and prostheses, and I honestly don’t know how this is done. Adam gradually becomes leaner, so that he literally seems to become a different person, imprecetably. And his makeover turns out to be a “project” for art student Evelyn, who shocks everyone with her presentation of her scheme in a museum at the film’s climax. He has become “better,” she says, so, indeed, has lost a need for personal moral compass. It all sounds like red kryptonite. The parallels between plot and concept are well done, as the introductory encounter between Adam and Evelyn where Adam works as an art museum security guard and catches here about to deface a Ulysses statue that is “false art.” Whether Adam can break out of his shell for a moment of assertiveness provides real suspense. There is later one encounter scene between the two male characters that tempts one with a touch of homoeroticism. Phillip, in shorts, shows off his wonderful virility: lean, with spectacular and hairy arms and legs. In the museum scene, it is Phillip who drops a visual hint that he could later become fatter.
One can extend this fable into philosophical moral debate. Evelyn makes her boyfriend “better” as an art object, as if she had the knowledge of good and evil and could dictate what is “good.” In one sense, she helps Adam and has dedicated her energies to benefiting another, but in another sense she is dictating who is “in” and who is “out”—a kind of body fascism (here in the heterosexual world) that could be seen as intrinsically evil. Adam does indeed become more like the alpha male Phillip. Yet, one of the points of moral thinking (at least in Catholic or religious terms) seems to be accepting oneself and others as “they are” (as “God” made them) and developing the ability to love them through the family mechanism. It has been said that only “God” has the right to measure people. When people measure people or even make them over, that is ultimately a threat to liberty. At least that is one point of view. Maybe this helps explains the “community standards” of the fig leaf on the Ulysses statue in the opening scene.
Another layered film is XX/XY (do the chromosomal algebra, it is
XXY (2007, Film Movement / Pyramide / Wanda Vision, dir. Lucia Puenzo,
86 min, R) a teenage hermaphrodite grows up as a girl in coastal
And Alex & Emma, directed by Rob Reiner (Warner Brothers, Franchise Pictures) with Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, provides a further example of story encapsulation and recursion. The top layer of this romantic comedy concerns Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson’s) just HAVING to get a novel written in thirty days to pay back a gambling loan or else get knocked off by bill collectors (they don’t follow the FDCPA). Sounds like the kind of narrative hook that literary agents say they want. The thugs even burn his laptop so he has to write by hand (his credit must be so bad that he can’t pick up another computer at the local COMPUsa). So he hires a stenographer, who brings her dictating machine and takes down his improvisation the old fashioned way, like B-school graduates of the 1940s. He spins a yarn about missed inheritances, a period piece from the 1920s, and pretty soon she starts getting into the story and wanting to help write it (especially after she drops the machine in the rain and has to make it up). Too many coincidences. A love triangle that sounds too much that of his real life. Okay, the made up novel, shown skillfully, is a little less contrived that the surface comedy. The inevitable love scenes come, and Reiner misses some golden opportunities in bed, where she could have unbuttoned his shirt slowly on a surprisingly hairless chest. No, then they move too fast.
There are a lot of witty lines about writing and fiction in the screenplay, conveying valuable information about the art and business of writing; but the actual surface story is so formulaic as to be ponderously silly. Move on.
Then, in late 2003 Robert Benton
directed and Nicholas Meyer screenwrote an
adaptation of Philp Roth’s novel, The Human Stain (Miramax and Lakeshore). The
plot jumps between the Clintonesque era of 1998 and the 1940’s, actually
starting with an auto wreck in which the elder Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins)
and his mistress Faunia Farely
(Nicole Kidman), estranged from a jealous husband Lester (Ed Harris) is run
off the road in a ravine in the Berkshire snows. Soon we learn of multiple
tragedies: Coleman is sacked from his professorship from using the word
“spook” inadvertently teaching a classical literature class (as a reference
to the “ghosts” of two absent students who happen to be African American),
interpreted by some as a racial slur. Then his wife dies of a pulmonary
embolism. He looks up a reclusive writer played by Gary Sinese,
whose role is to frame the layers of the story, that reach into flashbacks of
how the younger Silk (Wentworth Miller) “passed” as white and became
estranged from his family. (As I related in my DADT book, a black coworker
once commented to me that I was “passing” as straight!) As with so many
layered movies, the flashback narrative, as gradually revealed, is much more
compelling and absorbing than the present day setup. Silk, for example, had
signed up for the Navy as white to declare his race (and this was before
Truman’s integration of the military in 1948, often mentioned in today’s
debate about gays in the military) He “pretended” to be Jewish, another
irony. There is one lighthearted same-sex dancing scene between
Another layered screenplay from
Charles Kaufman is Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004,
Focus, 100 min, R, dir. Michel Gondry). Here Jim
Carry pulls off some sophisticated satire, without showing his butt but
instead regressing into his own memories, as they are erased by a “brain
damage” machine determined to remove memories of a lost love. His girl friend
has had the same treatment. Well, I think a past love can be a good memory.
Whatever. The story is told in layers and fragments, going back into
subconscious, where Carrey even prances around the kitchen floor playing as a
child, or as people vaporize from memory at Grand Central Station. The
satire, of course, comes at the expense of extreme-makeover doctors, and this
is not like the Fab Five. No, the two technicians
(Mark Ruffalo, complete with hairy bod, and Elijah Wood, a cleaned up Frodo who talks about
panties but looks preppie) come right out of Ghostbusters. For all the pulpy
surreal comedy, the grounding on
Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000, Columbia/Phoenix, dir. John Ottman) is a horror film that seems oddly placed on this page for review. But the storytelling device is interesting. A film student Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison) finds that most of the crimes in her horror film project (about “urban legends” – this film is definitely a “non sequel” to the original franchise piece) are being committed, seemingly by other students worried about graduating from film school and setting Tinseltown careers jump-started. Indeed, her “final cut” gets edited by one of the perpetrators. The mild-manner horror scenes (with a masked “Freddie” or “Jason”) jump between pretend (in the film) and real life, leaving the viewer to guess which is which. Now, a story about making a movie or about making the “A List” (my script project) is compelling indeed, but it ought to provide more likeable characters rather than one heroine of the Nancy Drew type. There is a character named Toby played by Anson Mount.
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