Saturday, July 07, 2012

We Need To Blog About Kevin

We saw We Need To Talk About Kevin last night.  Having read and enjoyed the book I was surprised by the film's fragmentary retelling.  The novel tells the story of a woman whose son committed a school shooting.  It's an epistolary novel in which the Mom reflects to her now-absent husband on how she always believed her son was a damaged soul.  This reflective narration allows for plenty of chronological flexibility, but Mom unspools each memory or thread of incidents in a carefully detailed and closely argued fashion.  In one of my favorite passages, the Mom, whose blend of wit and misanthropy recalls Humbert Humbert, details her loathing of a McMansion her husband bought the family.  She goes on and on about every last repellant detail of the bloated McGormenghast, and it is hilarious.  Mom is a hoot.

She's also, in another Humbertian nod, an unreliable narrator.  Is her son really as monstrous as she describes him, or is her misanthropy the root of the boy's damage?  It's a Turn of the Screw-style riddle without a provided solution.

In the movie the Mother's voice, along with her vinegar wit, is mostly excised.  No voiceover or soliloquies here.  And since the film shows what the book tells, the filmmaker (Lynne Ramsay, whose painterly and elliptical filmmaking here is a tour de force) must make a hundred little choices about how to show the boy's defiance and seeming wickedness.  He comes across as thoroughly reptillian, which tilts things in the Mother's favor.

The film is also more fragmentary, skipping through chronology in a succession of quick cuts, as if George Roy Hill circa Slaughterhouse 5 dropped acid with Antonioni circa Zabriskie Point with an assist from Resnais circa Last Year at Marienbad.  Oh, you know what I mean, quit bellyachin'.

You know what the film really reminded me of?  Anime movies based on long-running series.  These movies tend to toss linear narrative out the window and rely on a kinetic parade of highlights from the story in the original TV series/comic.  Lots of details are alluded to but glossed over in the assumption that you've engaged the source material and know the context of details that are plopped down into the movie without explanation.  If you want to see an example of what I'm talking about, by all means check out Evangelion: Death and Rebirth, the adaptation of the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV show that makes utter hash of the narrative, on the assumption that you've seen the show and just want a fancy recap before the screamy, spastic, let's-throw-every-idea-we've-got-onscreen-because-we-may-never-get-another-chance-before-we-have-to-go-back-to-hackwork-for-hire film it precedes: End of Evangelion.

Anyway, I liked the film on its own gawgeously photographed terms, but I had a few quibbles.


  • No spoilers, but there's a big tearjerking surprise in the novel's conclusion that the movie flattens out by choosing to remove the Mother's narrative.
  • The film decontextualizes some of the novel's elements so vigorously that they seem like little more than accidental residue.  Mom's seeing her son's TV interview; Mom's work as a travel writer.  These things are alluded to in the film in a fashion that left my wife, who didn't read the book, confounded.  I don't think my wife was alone in this.  I know the director didn't want to elaborate things in the rational manner of the book, but I'm not sure the bewildering surrealism of the way these elements of the novel irrupt in the film seem like anything more than arty intrusions to viewers who missed the book.
  • One of my favorite parts of the novel involves the pre-shooting teen psychopath boy befriending a witless hanger-on, and their attempt to frame an innocent schoolteacher of student molestation.  Author Lionel Shriver turns this into a screamingly funny passage about how it takes brains and guile to be a successful villain; brains and guile that hangers-on can't muster.  I missed this, is all I'm saying.  The film pared things down, and some fun sequences got lost.
  • One last thing.  There's a sequence in the film where the boy takes a bow to an imagined audience in the gym just before his crime.  It's shot like something out of Triumph of the Will, which makes sense as a cinematic look at the connection between self-glorification and brutality, but as a matter of taste I'd have preferred a found-footage style presentation that replaced the Wagnerian lighting with a verite smeariness.  The subtle irony of the film's approach to this shot might be lost on people who don't get the Triumph of the Will reference, while a Who-does-this-daydreaming-little-foreskin-think-he-is? presentation might puncture the self-dramatizing more deflatingly.  
I think "deflatingly" is a good way to end a sentence or a blogpost.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Do Not Mistake the Pointing Finger For the Moon; or, From Mediated Life to Life.

In the late 90s I was enraptured by an anime miniseries called Please Save My Earth.  Never mind the story; the people who made the show certainly didn't.  It was adapted from a long-running comic book series (that screaming you hear is nerds yelling "It's not a comic book; it's MANGA!") that had way too much made-up-as-she-went-along plot to fit smoothly into the adaptation, added to which the story in the comic wasn't yet finished when the anime was made.  The first episode of the six-episode show had a leisurely pace, but as it went on the tempo picked up, with incident trampling over incident until, at the end, we got a montage of unaddressed plot threads that felt like a "Next time on Please Save My Earth" trailer and an effort at poetic, rather than narrative, resolution.  This failure/refusal/confounding of linear narrative resolution, no matter how clumsy, prepared me for literary modernism in a way my literature classes hadn't.  The ending burst like a seedpod, flinging unresolved plot threads and dimly glimpsed story points all over, and I found it more entrancing than any tidy conclusion could have been.

So I was really into this show.  At one point in it there's a shot of a tree with its leaves wafting in the breeze; it had no narrative significance, but it was pretty to look at while the heroine narrated at us, and perhaps it suggested a context to her affairs that a more conventional picture of her face wouldn't provide.  For some reason this animated image of a tree resonated with me, perhaps because I lived in a neighborhood full of trees.

Every night I would come home from my second-shift job and walk the dog in the dark.  One of our neighbors had placed a light under a tall tree; the light shone up the shaft of the tree, illuminating its entire length up to the canopy of leaves.  I think I would have overlooked it if I hadn't had that animated image of a tree awakening me to the way trees exist on their own beside our lives; the numinousness of trees suddenly mattered to me after a life of living around them, and that illuminated tree became a nightly touchstone for me.

So.  I've progressed from cartoon trees (that in retrospect looked more like wobbling green bubble gum blobs than foliage) to trees with dramatic lighting, to just liking trees in general.  I regard this as progress: from the mediated experience to the thing itself.