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July 25, 2003

DVD Journal: "Adaptation"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Am I the only person in the world not dazzled by the two Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze collaborations, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"? Points conceded for originality, cleverness, and overall unusualness -- sigh -- lordy I found both of them tedious. "Malkovich"? I was amused by the set-up, then spent the rest of the movie wondering if they were ever going to get around to doing something with it.

I just finished watching "Adaptation." Most of it, anyway -- by the final 30 minutes I was leaning heavily on the fast-forward button. Pretty cleanly executed, though I couldn't have cared less one way or the other. And there wasn't even a cute setup to be amused by.

But I'm sure I'm not the movie's best audience; my appetite for smartypants conceptual hijinks is pretty limited, and the sweaty, insecure, anxiety-ridden genius-type protagonist almost always fails to charm me. (Haven't gone to a new Woody Allen movie in years and years.) But who is the movie's audience? My guess: McSweeney's fans ("Me? I wouldn't know how not to be self-referential!!!"), Upper West Siders, and suburban parents who still think of themselves as hipsters -- the new Woody Allen crowd, I suppose. But I'm being cruel and uncharitable, and should feel ashamed of myself for saying such things. And I do. Feel ashamed.

Hey, did you notice my Charlie Kaufman-style move in those last few sentences? Being mean, then regretful, then repentant -- but leaving it all in! Because, you see, the usual thing is to take that kind of stuff out! Snicker snicker, snort snort. Ain't I a post-postmodern wiz?

Are you a fan? If so, can you explain your enjoyment a bit? If not, any thoughts about why so many people seem to love the films?



posted by Michael at July 25, 2003


You're not alone. I saw "Being John Malkovich" which I didn't find nearly as clever as most people seemed to. Or, rather, the notion of jumping into other people was amusing, but where they took it seemed tedious and far too literal-minded. It was a movie I had mentally put behind me while it was still on the screen. I didn't see "Adaptation" as a result; life is too short.

On another subject: do you think Spike Lee is going to sue Spike Jonze next, now that he's settled over Spike TV?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 25, 2003 3:52 AM

Well, sometimes it takes a mere ONE excellent scene for me to say that I liked a movie. To be honest, I'm just not too picky about movies.

In "Adaptation" the scene that won me over was the car wreck. And almost as cool, the reaction of the driver dude to leave his teeth destroyed because of his guilt.

I dunno...I can't recall a car wreck shown in a movie with such psychological accuracy. I was amazed and overwhelmed. The idea where in one minute everything is peachy, to the next where life is tragically altered, really tears me up. Jeez, so true. Maybe I've been there before. I love to see this dynamic repeated over and over again. Glutton for punishment I s'pose.

Is it me or was that car wreck scene really good?

Posted by: laurel on July 25, 2003 8:18 AM

FvB -- "It was a movie I had mentally put behind me while it was still on the screen" -- excellent line. Also how I reacted.

Laurel -- That was a heck of a car wreck scene, wasn't it. "I love to see this dynamic repeated over and over again," you write. Intriguing -- you're the first movie car-wreck scene buff I think I've ever known. Not that I'm going to press you for an explanation or anything ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2003 8:35 AM

I wasn't wild about ADAPTATION but thought it had some good touches -- the best for me being the Robert McKee character. I've taken some McKee courses and thought the portrayal was funny and accurate about McKee. I think that Kaufman has an audacious sense of what a movie could be. But I generally think it would make a better humor piece than an actual movie.

Posted by: Polly Frost on July 25, 2003 10:50 AM

Polly -- I enjoyed the McKee character too, and thought the actor nailed McKee pretty good. You write, "Kaufman has an audacious sense of what a movie could be" -- what a wonderful way of putting it. But they're kind of dull, so far as I'm concerned. What's lacking, do you suppose? Some highly-conceptual movies work pretty well -- "Run Lola Run," for example. And it seems inevitable that we'll be seeing lots more of this kind of thing, sigh. What does it take to put one of them over? What are the challenges?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2003 11:06 AM

While I liked the wit and much of the artistry (i.e. the marionettes) in BJM, I failed to find charm in Adaptation. In fact, I think that Kaufman and Jones were, in a sort of smug, self-aggrandizing way, were doing their audience a diservice. The problem with getting all "meta" (and clearly being so proud of it) in Adaptation is that the execution of the "dueling movies" ends up undercutting everything good and leaves the movie without any resonance. The scenes between Cooper and Streep in the Everglades look beautiful and contain the sort of fragile intimacy shared by people who have been through the ringer (which I suppose is everyone to a certain extent). But by inviting us into such a scene and relationship, only to undercut it with Charlie/Donald's antics left me feeling cheated. I mean, I guess that's the point of the movie, but what's more interesting...spending time with a series of complex, flawed and interesting folks embarking on a series of complex flawed and interesting relationships or constantly being reminded that we're just bouncing around Kaufman's head?

Posted by: The Bizness on July 25, 2003 11:56 AM

While I enjoyed BJM, Adaptation was too much of an intellectual wank job. Same comments as before. Smug, over-grandstandings, and wa-a-a-y too long (When did all movies have to become 3 hour epics?)

A side note: Michael gets Upper West Siders perfectly in his jabs. As a recent transfer (by force, I was forced to unearth the word "Middlebrow" to describe it.

Really Michael, you need to bite deeper. For my psycological state anyway.


Posted by: John Leavitt on July 25, 2003 5:05 PM

Bizness, dude, what's wrong with you? Meta is the way to go. Don't you want to be part of your own, self-pleasedly, helplessly, endlessly self-fascinated narcissistic/solipsistic generation?

John -- I remember checking out the "time passed" and "time yet to come" feature on the "Adaptation" DVD and being amazed each time at how much time remained. That's when my finger went to the fast-forward button. You're on the Upper West Side? I always feel like I've gotten lost in the Arts and Leisure section when I'm up there. Beautiful neighborhood, but. Are you enjoying it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2003 5:37 PM

Didn’t enjoy “Being John M” any more or less than I enjoy the Legally Blonde sequel. Loved adaptation. It reminded me very much of “Tremors” by being both genuine no kidding meta fiction and a real kick in the pants entry in the genre it set out to meta.

And by the way, didn’t you notice the movie doesn’t belong to the nebbish? It belongs to the lust for life guy with a lust for car chases, sex, and drugs. Wheeee. A real smack in the face to those who that film is an easy medium for art. (Which is at odd with the willingness to have Being and Adaptation discussed as though they are artier than they, in fact, are... but I’ll think about that tomorrow.)

Posted by: j.c. on July 25, 2003 10:33 PM

I think you'd do better to look at the movie the way it looks at itself ... not really much of a movie. Only an extension of self. Filter out the framework of film and enter it ... as one of your own ponderings on this blog. The beauty of BJM and Adaptation ironically embodies some of reasons I come to this web-site. Why I like both. Are 2 blowhards really all that different from the Kaufmans? Hell, on just a base level, I get you two confused all the time.

Look at how it does battle with formulaic publishing/methodology and then must concede the reasoning behind its success. How it finds itself miserable within its own superiority. Yes, a Kaufman or a Blowhard may see that the emperor has no clothes, but does it make them any happier? Just the opposite. Why must that be true? Considering the amount of tossing and turning that goes on here regarding formal aesthetic practice vs. the passion to create ... the academic vs. the heart ... The conflict ... the yin yang dynamic to art making ... the madness it requires to be a creative and to push on ... did it not occur to you that within its cute wrapping ... it may be ... gulp ... honest? As honest as anyone can be on these topics.

What if Kaufman -is- boring? Like he says he is. How does your review enlighten beyond only reaffirming his own self parody? The very same reason for the film onion skinning into self destruction. What if he is truly disemboweling himself on a major motion picture? How rare would that be? You only provide him his "second man" to take off the head after he's already turned the blade in his belly ... you may be viewed as humane ... or you may just be redundant.

If you could see your way clear of his joke, see your way beyond his comic response to his ultimate despair, provide an answer of sorts yourself ... you may be onto something ... but you observe the obvious and move on. You point a finger where he's already inserting the scalpel. I'm ugly, stupid and a pony searching for that one good trick. Answers are mirages, art is compromise, and if we don't laugh at ourselves we'll surely implode. What if his intent wasn't to entertain you, but tell you the dirty secret he's a hack? What if he was being honest? Jumping up and down he's saying "ok, future writers ... follow me ... come up with some non-sequiturs ... wrap them together with some cutting wit ... and you have the success I found with BJM, kiddies." He then comes up with the flower thief story and doping on orchids and such ... and then says, "I fucking hate myself ... my shtick ... -my- formula."

What's the difference between avoiding the formulas the writing instructor in the film preaches when you follow your own personal dogma? ... operating within your own competencies? A self serving structure that becomes accentuated and exploited once success enters the picture. Now, with a second film, Kaufman has something to lose. He probably didn't even think BJM would ever be made ... and now he has to repeat the success of something he himself probably dismissed as a bad joke. What the hell is he supposed to do? Well he wrote a movie on that problem. One worth considering beyond how well it goes with popcorn and soda.

Stephen King wrote that if you are a plumber by day and you want to write a sci-fi novel ... your best bet is to write about a plumber working on a spaceship. This mental projection of self into work is common practice ... stuff a lie with truth to make it hold the ring of reality. The Kaufman's become the natural extension of this logic. Humorously they grope for an entry point into the drama ... and when they do it turns ugly. The film hates itself for being a film. The story that hates the structural support beams of story telling. So it mocks them, kicks at their foundation, and ultimately (after breaking a few toes) concedes to them in despair. After all that posturing and trying to hold true to his guns ... it has a climax with action ... revelations ... resolution ... and so on. It caves, and realizes it must. He listens to the teacher, the Art director, the publisher ... the man with the whip. He must. It's that simple.

How bad is that?

The movie has no answers ... but maybe that's its ultimate resolution ... it doesn't believe in them. Maybe that should be of comfort to someone like Kaufman. There is no golden ticket out of this shit. We all lust the idealized ... and once confronted with the drug sniffer murderer behind the icon we worshipped ... we then suffer from some momentary cognitive dissonance, sure. But what a beautiful gift that may hold. Conversely, it is our knowledge of the intimate that covers it in the mundane ... hides the beauty of the familiar from us. How a hated sister is the ultimate love of another. How that goofy girl around the corner might be worth pursuing after all. How he disregarded the innocent beauty of his brother and looks towards the apparitions of this divine author to guide him. A beautiful book must mean a beautiful person behind it, right? ... but if that is untrue ... maybe ... just maybe ... the guy that writes the bad movie is off the hook. Doesn't necessarily infer he is a poor artist/man ... a general failure after all. Maybe he can embrace the poor sap we know most intimately ... ourselves. That may sound trite ... but most truths are.

Yes, I liked it a great deal.
Yes, I do talk to myself.
... and yes, it was a purposely bad film.

Like any good martyr knows ... the only victory is in defeat.

Posted by: pinky on July 25, 2003 10:39 PM

How am I enjoying the UWS? My thoughts are summed up in "eh". My artwork sold in West Village, it doesn't sell here (I don't know why, honestly, I would have thought Beardsley-equse erotic imagery would be all the rage...)And while the place is nice looking..there are far too many families and old jewish women with walkers. Too many women with short hair and black glasses who read the New Yorker religously (tho I wouldn't mind getting my cartoons in here :).
Not as many admen as in the West village but not as many people who don't seem cut from the same mold. Every dinner party runs along the same lines, everyone likes the same thing and has the same taste. I guess thats true of any ghetto.

Its pretty enough, but I don't want to live here.
(also, there are very few cafes, which I thought odd for such a supposedly arty crowd. Very few neighborhood places...outside of Big NIcks..of which I am an addict.)


Posted by: JLeavitt on July 26, 2003 12:13 AM

Hmmm. OK, I liked "Being John Malkovich". I went to see it in the theatre. I will freely admit to being a movie ignoramus however, and that I rarely go to see more than 3 or 4 movies a year. Those that I do see, unless they are horrendous duds tend to amuse me highly. I have almost no judgemental capabilities in the movie department. I usually enjoy movies far more in the theatre setting than I do on video.

I think this does not qualify me for a fan, just for being a rube. I am a naive enough viewer to find scenes like the half an office diverting. I did in fact think that the movie was clever, and I don't recall any bits (it was a while ago) that made me wince too badly (by their stupidity).

Posted by: Felicity on July 26, 2003 2:45 AM

J.C. -- I'll have to check out "Tremors." I had no idea it was a meta-y kind of movie. Do you have meta-y kinds of tastes generally? I do in some media, but meta-y movies often wind up striking me as underfed.

Pinky -- Hey, my dad used to call me Pinky when I was a small child! Wow, I'm speechless in the face of your thoughts, which I mean in an admiring way. I do get the movie, it just didn't work for me -- I saw how it was supposed to work, I just didn't experience it as working. But your excitement and perceptions do a great job of showing how the movie affects someone whom it does work for. Many thanks.

JL -- That's hilarious, I've known some of those old ladies with glasses who are over-addicted to the New Yorker. What does it mean to them, do you suppose? We've got a few of them down in the neck of the Village where I live, but they do seem to be more numerous up your way. And those UWS dinner parties -- phew. Woody Allen sure puts them up on screen accurately. I just wish he were funnier about them. But maybe they represent his idea of a cultured life. Sad to say.

Felicity -- You enjoy what you enjoy. Look at me -- I rave on about the pleasures of French erotic psych-suspense movies. I mean, how weird can I be? It's interesting that you see as few movies as you do. How do you pick the ones you do choose to see? Interesting too that you enjoy movies better in a theater than at home. I do too, sometimes, but often I'll prefer the DVD. I wonder whether it depends more on my mood or more on the movie. There are some movies that are great to see in a theater -- extra-special visually, or the social element of going out makes a diff. But some are great at home. Wasn't it J.C. who wrote about how much she enjoyed "Eyes Wide Shut" at home? And the movie does seem to please home viewers. Yet in theaters audiences laughed at it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 26, 2003 12:25 PM

-What the New Yorker means to them? I can't say..I can only say what it means to me. We had the collected cartoons and short story books of the New Yorker and I used to read them constantly. The cartoons, the witty short stories, all a champane vision of a giddy urbane life. All cocktail parties and shiny dresses, witty banter and a wry, sighing look on life. The exact opposite of living out of your car and sharing a bed with 3 people. The fantasia of New York draws people in (nevermind that it's decades out of date, or that it never really exists except for people like Harold Ross who made it real in fiction...the old art imitating life cycle.)

Also the New Yorker is, lamentably, one of the few general interest magazines left.

Golding had a wonderful essay about types of intellences, 1st, 2st, and 3rd tiers. 1st is emotion without thought, acting on impulse. THe 2nd type sees though the 1st and breaks down and satrizes. The 3rd, however, actually creates something new in the place of what is critized. The key difference is that while mockery and "stripping of pretense" is reductive and destructive, the 3rd type..creation, can actually improve the world (Golding said he has only met one ture 3rd Tier intellect, Einstein, and it was on a bridge where they shared 3 words about the river.) So my point in all this is..the dinner parties in the UWS almost always focus around 2nd Tier talk, "Isn't this terrible! How horrible! Aren't we better." So much wanking and self-congradulatory piddle. Of course, I have these parties to try and get comissions, portraits and the like. So I shouldn't complain.

The movies "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "Tadpole" give two views on the area. (Also, both filmed blocks from my house. Tadpole actually in the building across the street.) Jessica in "Kissing Jessica Stein" is a satrical Upper West Side lady, smart, but neuortic and bland and hopelessly "normal". "Tadpole" shows how the area would like to be seen, a world of culture and barbs in French, slammed doors and bed-hopping lotharios reading Candide.

My final thoughts on the UWS (I hope) are that the neighborhood is pretty staid and unneighborly..with all the interest going on inside the apartments.

So there.

Anyone in the market for a portrait?


Posted by: JLeavitt on July 26, 2003 2:38 PM

I have cultivated people who watch a great many movies, and who's opinion has proved reliable. The movie list does become a bit eclectic, but that way, some variety is provided, and taking a chance may introduce me to something surprising.

When I watch a movie in the theatre, I pay attention. The picture is large, and the sound is loud, and the room is dark. On VCR or DVD, it is too easy for me to get distracted by a book, or something else, so I tend to wander off and do something else. I also liked "Pi" and "The Saragossa Manuscript"; "Saragossa" I saw first in the theatre, and was mesmerized. I recently rented a copy, and although I still liked it, it had not the same surreal quality that I remembered from the original viewing.

People around me at home seem to want to talk when I am watching something that is interesting to me. That is also distracting.

Posted by: Felicity on July 27, 2003 3:03 AM

That's "whose". Sorry.

Posted by: Felicity on July 27, 2003 3:04 AM

About Adaptation, I love that he had to visit a Screenwriting seminar to finish the project. So many "Writers" (or artists for that matter) could take some down to earth advice on what makes workable (sellable) material and what wont and how to oragnize your thoughts. (Not control them, just a set of limits to work around).

I didn't *hate* the movie, just thought it was a little overpraised and could have used some trimming down.

-J"maybe they should read "Poetics"" Leavitt

Posted by: JL on July 28, 2003 1:36 AM

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