A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What I'm Reading

Notes on Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates.

But first, a word about spoilers.

I like them. I like seeing the way a writer or filmmaker puts things together, the artful dodges that conceal or hint at a story's direction, even when the work hinges on a surprise. I knew the surprise that was coming in The Crying Game, and delighted in the knowledge I had that characters in the film didn't. On the other hand, I didn't know what was coming in The Sixth Sense when I first saw it (though I was aware there was a gimmick), and I enjoyed the movie more on a second viewing, watching the way Shyamalan staged Bruce Willis's interactions with the living.

So this is a warning: There is no way I can write intelligently about Revolutionary Road without alluding to what happens at its end, so if you are a spoiler-phobic who hasn't either seen the film or read the book, you may want to stop right here. Nice to see you. Come back again.

This is not to place either the film of Revolutionary Road or the book in the same category as The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense. They don't depend on withheld plot in the same way. While April's death is shocking, it's not -- in terms of characterization -- a surprise. (I realize I'm being a little unfair to The Crying Game, a comparatively realistic film, by lumping it with a ghost story. What they really have in common is that both films were much discussed for their "twists.")

I saw the film version of Revolutionary Road before I read the book. And in a curious way the book made me more appreciative of the film, and the film made me more critical of the book. Specifically, the book made me better appreciate the skill demonstrated by Kate Winslet at drawing a character who is, I think, somewhat underdrawn in the book. Winslet's April is, I think, bipolar, swinging from the low of her failure in The Petrified Forest to the high of her scheme to drop out of the rat race and move to Paris. The April of the novel is more enigmatic, partly because Yates doesn't narrate from her point of view until the very end, as she's contemplating the suicidal self-induced abortion. We see events through Frank's point of view, through Milly and Shep's, through Mrs. Givings's, and once even through the children's. But we don't enter April's consciousness until it's too late.

Is this a narrative flaw? I hesitate to call it that: A writer has the prerogative to tell his story any way he wants. And by staying distant from April's point of view, Yates makes her even more the isolated, alienated figure in the novel -- a counterpart to the mentally disturbed John Givings. (We don't need to see events from John's point of view, however; he's perfectly willing to tell us what he thinks.) That April is the archetypal alienated 1950s housewife is perfectly obvious. Though she longs to escape to Paris, she couches it in terms of allowing Frank to "find himself." In service to her husband, she has given up her ambitions for a career, the pleasures of urban life, and even dominion over her own body.

Frank, of course, remains oblivious to what's eating away at April. His embrace of the Paris scheme is ambivalent at best -- he lacks the imagination either to conceive of such a plan himself, or to see what it represents for April. Though initially he thinks of his life as a sad carbon copy of his father's -- meaningless work for the same soulless company -- once a new pathway in that life opens up when his talent is recognized by Pollock, he's eager to settle in that routine, greatly relieved when April's pregnancy stymies the Paris escape.

One thing we sometimes forget in thinking about the man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit conformity of the Fifties is that Frank's generation is also the one lately celebrated as the "Greatest Generation." They had been to war, and were quite happy to settle into the routines of peace -- at the expense of becoming boring, as is revealed in the scene in which Frank embarrasses himself by recounting the same war story he had told the same people before. The wartime home-front service and sacrifices of the women of that generation have not been similarly celebrated, and that fact underscores the dissatisfaction of an April.

(Or a Betty Draper. The comparison of "Mad Men" and Revolutionary Road is by now a familiar one -- and a little misleading, since the action of the TV series takes place five to eight years later than that of the novel. And Don Draper/Dick Whitman is a rather more ruthlessly aggressive figure than Frank Wheeler. Don knows what he wants from life and reinvents himself to achieve it. He's also not one to dwell on war stories, since his are not really his own. But even though Matthew Weiner may deny the influence, April looks a lot like the pattern for Betty. Both are caught in the same suburban trap, and even had the same kind of children -- older girl, younger boy -- before unanticipated pregnancies thwarted their potential liberation from child-rearing. Betty studied archaeology only to find herself joking about it while looking at antique furniture; April aspired to be an actress but wound up in a disastrous amateur production of The Petrified Forest in a high school auditorium. And both fell decidedly out of love with their philandering husbands, and wound up having furtive casual sex. But unlike April, Betty has survived the fall. At least so far.)

The novel's beginning, I think, is stronger than its ending. In fact, this is one place where I prefer the film, which condenses the hospital scene and the redundant scenes at the Campbells and the Givingses. I think the inclusion of a shot of Frank playing with the children softens the film a little too much -- the novel almost leaves the impression that Frank farmed the children out to his brother and sister-in-law, an ironic recapitulation of April's scattered childhood. But I do like that both novel and film end with Mr. Givings turning off his hearing aid.

Of course, what makes the novel far superior to the film (even though the film is remarkably faithful to the book) is the fluency of Yates's prose and the keenness of his insight into the characters. We know where we are and where we're going with the Wheelers from the beginning, or at least when we experience with Frank the disaster of the production of The Petrified Forest:
[N]othing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn't seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing ("Wouldn't you like to be loved by me?") and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt, constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.

It's a process of illusion and disillusionment that recurs throughout the book; only a few pages later Frank recalls a postcoital April "whispering: 'It's true, Frank. I mean it. You're the most interesting person I've ever met.'" And then only three paragraphs after that the present-day April is saying to him, "All right, Frank. Could you just please stop talking now, before you drive me crazy?" Has a more savagely anti-Romantic novel ever been published?

The key to Frank, I think, is his desire to be a man, not the scared boy he's afraid he really is. Working on the stone path to his house, he prides himself that "At least it was a man's work," and drifts into a reverie about his own masculinity:
At least, squatting to rest on the wooded slope, he could look down and see his house the way a house ought to look on a fine spring day, safe on its carpet of green, the frail white sanctuary of a man's love, a man's wife and children. Lowering his eyes with the solemnity of this thought, he could take pleasure in the sight of his own flexed thigh ... and of the heavily veined forearm that lay across it and the dirty hand that hung there -- not to be compared with his father's hand, maybe, but a serviceable good-enough hand all the same -- so that his temples ached in zeal and triumph as he heaved a rock up from the suck of its white-wormed socket and let it roll end over end down the shuddering leafmold, because he was a man.
And then his daughter asks why Mommy slept on the sofa last night.

No film can be as searching and probing as that passage is about the tyranny of masculinity and the narcissism it inspires, or as revelatory of the human gap between who we are and what we want to be.

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