Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011)

Hey here’s another entry in our continuing 2nd Annual Taste My Sad Oscar Watch (2ATMSOW)! I saw this movie on Monday, the day before the Oscar nominations were announced, and was quite worried that it would be shut out of the nominations, thus rendering this post unrelated to the Oscar Watch. This is what I worry about these days.

Luckily, it earned two surprise nods: Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow). This makes it the second film in the four-movie-long 2ATMSOW to actually be nominated for Oscars. Congratulations to The Descendants. Sorry ‘bout it, Like Crazy and Weekend. Better luck next year, even though you will be ineligible for Oscars next year.

By the way, this feature will continue throughout the next month, culminating in the Second Annual Taste My Sad Oscar Sadstravaganza, in which I pick the saddest entry in each Oscar category. It is in no way “completely unnecessary.”

Category: Sad movie featuring a former Jeopardy! champion. This is the only such movie I can think of at the moment. At least until the upcoming documentary: What is… Diabetes?

Much more controversially, this is a sad movie about 9/11. It’s been over ten years since that terrible day, and about five years since Hollywood started making movies explicitly about the attacks (United 93 and World Trade Center were both released in 2006). Several others have been made that either directly or obliquely reference the attacks since then. They've all been fairly controversial, and I'm sure all of them were talked about derisively on Fox & Friends. And obviously it's important to be prudent when making a movie about such a traumatic event. I remember reading that Steven Spielberg refused to take a salary for Schindler’s List, stating that it would be “blood money.” No word on whether or not Robert Pattinson did likewise for Remember Me. (We’ll get to Remember Me on the blog soon, by the way. Hooooo boy.)

The issue with these movies is that they run the risk of being exploitative. Ten years is obviously a fair amount of time, but for many, many people, seeing those images will never not be too soon. Roger Ebert wrote, “No movie has ever been able to provide a catharsis for the Holocaust, and I suspect none will ever be able to provide one for 9/11.” I respect that sentiment. I also respect the people who have (non-cynically) tried to make meaningful artistic statements about those events. I do not respect people who are reactionary about this issue, the people who want to erase the Twin Towers from movies and TV shows and all that, as if they want us all to forget they ever existed. That strikes me as childish and very against the whole "never forget" thing.

My familiarity with this issue: In working with children who were too young to remember the tragedy, I found that those kids talked about 9/11 with an open, unfiltered curiosity that I initially took as disrespectful. (I admittedly had a low threshold for “thinking the kids were being disrespectful.”) Upon reflection, I realized that the kids just lack the heightened sense of propriety that those of us who remember the event possess. These kids will learn about 9/11 in school, no doubt, but they’ll really begin to understand it in a more meaningful way when they see a movie that really makes them understand what it was like to be alive when it happened – the way that we understood the Holocaust in a different way after seeing Schindler’s List. I have a feeling that Remember Me isn’t gonna cut it.

I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, on which the film is based, in college, and I loved it. It was different from anything I had read before (which may say more about the breadth of my pre-college reading than it does about the book itself). I remember thinking it was audacious and weird and often funny and often so ridiculously sad. There were parts of the book that I continue to find amazing; you should all read “The Sixth Borough” (a chapter of the book, here taken from the New York Times a year or so before the book was released). I was particularly taken by Oskar, the precocious, possibly Asperger’s-afflicted nine-year-old protagonist, whose stream-of-consciousness narration reminded me of my own nine-year-old thoughts.

That’s why I wasn’t happy about the fact that the book was being turned into a movie. The idea of some child actor reciting Oskar’s lines in voiceover made me cringe. (Here’s the first chapter of the book, for reference.) And beyond that: this adaptation isn’t a movie (like Liev Schrieber’s adaptation of Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated), but rather, a Movie. A big studio movie that stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, was produced by known guy-who-runs-Hollywood Scott Rudin, and was directed by Stephen Daldry, who has directed three two Oscar-nominated movies that were all criticized for being little more than Oscar bait (Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader). (UPDATE: fellow Jeopardy! champion and FOTB Kara Spak correctly points out that that criticism was never really applied to Billy Elliot, which everyone seemed to enjoy free of cynicism. Duly noted.) So I worried that the quirky uniqueness of the book that I so loved would be lost in the shuffle. (By the way, I would love to reread the book to see if I’d still love it as much as it once did, but I lent out my copy to someone and don’t have it in my house. Note to everyone to whom I’ve lent out books: please return them at some point. Thanks!)

The movie came out in limited release last month (so that it would be eligible for Oscar consideration), so even though the movie opened in DC just this past weekend, I’ve already read a bunch of reviews for it. Some of them are quite positive. People magazine gave it four stars! Some of them are SAVAGE. The A.V. Club, an outlet that I usually trust (or at least trust more than People magazine), gave it an F. I’ve seen it on lists of the worst films of the year. I’ve also seen it get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. So. Your guess is as good as mine.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “A nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.”

What I thought of the movie: I did not hate it. I think an F is a pretty ridiculous overreaction. I have seen some shit for this blog, and this movie was not on that level at all. Plus, I’m as sensitive about 9/11 as the next reasonable person, and I didn’t think it was completely objectionable or exploitative.

But I also didn’t think it was very good. It did not approach the sort of emotional resonance as the book, and for the very reason I feared: it couldn’t replicate the tone of Oskar’s narration. The words which, on the page, were so endearingly weird and off-kilter sounded grating when spoken onscreen. Foer’s brilliant use of language is almost completely negated in the movie. You have to wonder if anyone who saw the movie without reading the book (and thus understanding what Foer was going for) could possibly stand it.

There are also scenes that are fully depicted in the movie that are real clunkers, things that really stand out as emotionally manipulative and unfair. Things I don’t remember from the book and wish I could go and check and see if they were in the book, but can’t, thanks a lot, PERSON WHO HAS MY COPY OF THE BOOK. So, it was quite disappointing.

How I related to the movie: Oskar has business cards in the movie (in the book, as well). I’d forgotten about that, and when I saw it in the movie I recoiled. Here is why. As mentioned, I recently worked at a program with young kids (eleven and twelve years old) who loved yapping about 9/11 all day and night. We'd get different groups of kids each week and teach them about leadership and take them around DC and explain to them that they shouldn't loudly talk about the Twin Towers' collapse in the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum.

One week, I had a young man in my group named Cole (this is not his real name). When he got off the plane in DC, the first thing he did was give former coworker of the blog and current friend of the blog Jaime Albarelli his business card. (She promptly texted me to let me know that a kid who had his own business cards was going to be in my group that week. I groaned.)

Cole must have had a thousand of those cards, because every adult and kid there had one by the end of the week. But beyond the cards (a red flag, to be sure), he was just the worst kid I’ve ever met. An obnoxious, loud, self-centered, indifferent, unpleasant little shit. I found a GChat conversation with FOTB Allie Hagan from that week that I believe accurately reflects my feelings on him at the time:

Allie: johnnnnnnnnnn! 
how's your week?
me: i have a kid with his own business cards
who either cries, throws up, or distracts everyone else with his ADHD
it's like having an infant in the room
an infant with business cards
Allie: oh god

(Not to say that all kids with ADHD are difficult, by the way. I had other kids with ADHD who were awesome. Carry on.)

Oh wait but the other thing, I’ll drop this soon I promise, but the other thing was that his business cards DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT HIM. Oskar’s business cards had descriptive things about him that were vaguely endearing (“Francophile,” “amateur inventor,” etc). Cole’s had his name, address and phone number. That was it. Like, at least make it interesting, kid! I still have that card somewhere. I’ve strongly considered ordering a dozen pizzas to their house one day to make up for the week that he crushed my soul. The lesson: kids shouldn't have business cards.

Back to the movie. The precociousness of the kid and his whimsical journey, set against the backdrop of 9/11, is the juxtaposition that really eats at people, I think. Honestly though, that wasn’t the main problem for me. You all know my hatred of child actors, but Thomas Horn wasn’t all that bad. Maybe I understood that it’s a pretty impossible role to play, and that the kid did the best he could. Or maybe it’s that there’s an unwritten rule to not criticize other members of the fraternity of Jeopardy! champions. Hard to say.

How I felt after the movie ended: I heard people crying in the theater. I did not cry. I think I cried while reading the book, though. I wonder if I’d do that if I reread it. (Ahem.)

In the end the issue is that the movie, by virtue of being a movie (or a Movie), makes certain fantastical and magical things from the book very, unavoidably literal. You see him doing all the things he talks about doing in the book, which on its face doesn’t seem like a big deal. That’s pretty much how you adapt books into movies.

But… it’s not a realistic book. The kid walks all across New York City by himself, because he’s afraid of public transportation. (Not Manhattan, mind you, THE WHOLE CITY. Staten Island, Far Rockaway, the whole thing. He’s nine. Come on now.) So either they needed to embrace the unrealism of it, or just not make it. They did neither. They missed the point, and thus they made something that a lot of reasonable people think is offensive. I disagree with those people. When a book so interesting becomes a movie this mainstream, it’s not necessarily offensive. It’s just not fair.

1 comment:

  1. Got stopped when you brought up the "never forget" thing because I have what some may say are wild, contrarian things to say about the issue. I think what I have to say is very on point. I'll bring it up in person and you'll be very interested.