October 24, 2013

STALEY | The Beats Are Back

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This fall, there are four literary-cinematic events to note. Some are opening nation-wide; some are specific to Cornell’s campus; and all are worthy of your attention.

Kill Your Darlings: Perhaps because Americans are too inebriated with the myths of their writers to understand them, American actors rarely get cast as famous beatnik authors. After York-born Sam Riley played Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac’s on-page ego, in last season’s On the Road, Daniel Radcliffe, the Harry Potter alum with an impressive child-actor lifespan, will play Allen Ginsburg in upcoming Kill Your Darlings. While Riley looked too boyish and virginal to play rugged blue-collar Kerouac, Radcliffe looks appropriately uncomfortable playing a young, neurotic Ginsburg (last played by James Franco in 2010’s Howl). Here, Ginsburg deals with friends William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) after Carr stabbed his stalker David Kammerer in Morningside Park. So far, the film has been positively received. Critics have praised it for both questioning the merits and morals of the beats and for focusing on the young writers’ days as idealistic students at Columbia — the prelude to their later, more-documented careers. The film is not an adaptation (although Kerouac and Burroughs wrote a book about the incident, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks) and is coming to Cinemapolis next week.

Big Sur: Similarly, Jean-Marc Barr, German-born and of French ancestry (like Kerouac), will play Jack Duluoz (a.k.a. Jack Kerouac) in an adaptation of Kerouac’s second-to-last novel, Big Sur. Last year or so, the film’s producers released a somber trailer with little dialogue and a modern-day song playing (by the Fugees). Recently, however, producers pushed back the release date and re-marketed the film, giving it a more verbal and commercial-friendly trailer. Although the original trailer looked unpromising, it looked more true to the tone of the boozy, at times depressing, novel Kerouac wrote as he was descending into alcoholism and head-trauma induced depression. (Aside: Kerouac was also plagued by penis envy … we can thank Neal Cassidy, played here by American Josh Lucas, for that). The novel focuses on the relationship between Carolyn and Neal Cassidy, Kerouac and his love interest (Kate Bosworth) as they stay at publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s house in Big Sur, a pacific town in Northern California that is too expensive for the beatniks (or really anyone) these days.

As I Lay Dying: Aside from A.O. Scott, who, coincidentally, is coming to speak at Willard Straight Hall on Nov. 6th, most critics advise against seeing this one, and it is not coming to a theater in or near Ithaca. See it, however, if you want to appraise director James Franco’s degrees (from Columbia, Yale and other schools that give Cornellians an inferiority complex). As if the four perspectives in The Sound and the Fury weren’t enough, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is told through fifteen family members as they carry the body of their mother, Addie Bundren, to Jefferson, Mississippi. Given its experimental structure, the novel is notoriously un-adaptable, and Mr. Franco may have over-extended himself.

The Swimmer: I’m most excited about the one classic adaptation on the list, The Swimmer, playing at Cornell Cinema Nov. 2nd. Based on the 1964 John Cheever New Yorker short story of the same name, The Swimmer is perhaps as resistant to screen adaptation as As I Lay Dying. The story follows potentially “legendary figure” Neddy Merrill as he takes a boozy swim from swimming pool to swimming pool through suburban Bullet Park (likely Westchester, New York) looking for a passage home. The story achieves a gloomy, disorienting sense of enigma through shrewd omissions of detail: if he’s not swimming in a river, how is there a link of swimming pools threading through the country? Does the story take place over one afternoon or several months? This license and uncertainty is possible in literature, but hardly so in movies. To see how it’s handled, you’ll have to see the showing.

Aside from a few Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and an unexceptional adaptation of his novel Bullet Park, 1968’s The Swimmer is the only full-length, noteworthy adaptation of a Cheever story. Cheever’s stories don’t become movies; rather, they inspire them. More so than Richard Yates or John Updike, Cheever is the imagination behind the contemporary suburban gothic genre that has risen to fashion in the past couple of decades — think Little Children, A Serious Man, American Beauty or Revolutionary Road. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner acknowledges Cheever’s shorts were an influence on his work. That’s an understatement. If you look through Cheever’s collection of short stories, you’ll find Ossining, NY (where Betty and Don Draper live in the first three seasons); Joan Harris, the show’s sexy redhead, in Cheever’s “The Torch Song”; the sleeping-with-secretaries subplot gone wrong in his “The Five-Forty-Eight”; and the bourgeois, borderline-dysfunctional alcoholic archetype (think Don, Freddy Rumsen, Duck Phillips) in every other Cheever story (most tragically and/or hilariously in “A Reunion”). In the film’s the trailer is a bonfire of kitsch (clinking martinis, bossa nova music, Cheever making a cameo and Burt Lancaster in an era-specific short bathing suit). This is a rare film that I’ve been looking to find. If you do not see it at Cornell Cinema, you’d be blessed to find it elsewhere.

Henry Staley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at hstaley@cornellsun.com. Politicizing Art appears alternate Fridays.