Category: the petri dish

Atonement in Film

When the Oscar nominations were announced last week, I was a bit surprised to hear that the film adaptation of Atonement had earned a nod for Best Picture. In some ways, the beauty of the novel rests on its use of language, its psychological depth, and a rather odd structure, which Ian McEwan somehow manages to pull off. The first third of the book takes places over the course of one day and is told from the points of view of several characters: the young, impressionable Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer; her older sister Cecilia, who just returned from Cambridge; their inept mother, Emily; the teenage Lola, a house guest who is raped that evening; and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises’ charlady, who also just returned from Cambridge with a ‘first-class degree,’ and stands accused of the crime. The second part of the book is set during the Second World War, in which Robbie serves. Through flashbacks, we find out what happened to him, and learn more about his romantic relationship with Cecilia, and his fight to clear his name. The third part of the book is told through Briony’s point of view. She is now training to be a nurse, and works at a London hospital where a huge number of wounded soldiers are sent. There is also an epilogue, written in 1999 by a now elderly Briony.

In Joe Wright‘s adaptation, the first third of the book is rendered beautifully and the shifting points of view work well on screen, but the entire project falls apart as soon as Robbie is whisked off to jail. The war scenes inevitably recall in the spectator’s mind the work of Steven Spielberg–and the comparison is not to Wright’s advantage. Where the book is subtle (in France, Robbie sees a single human leg hanging from a tree), the adaptation hits you over the head (a whole group of Catholic school girls dead under a tree.) The parts that are set in the hospital feel bogged down and irrelevant. Saoirse Ronan (who plays Briony as a child) and Vanessa Redgrave (who plays an old Briony) manage to rescue the scenes in which they appear, and the cinematography is certainly breathtaking, but I thought Atonement just didn’t hold together as a film. (In sharp contrast to, say, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men.)

Photo: Atonement film still (link.)

Emory Douglas @ MOCA

I had been meaning to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibit on The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas for quite a while, and I finally, finally got a chance to do so this past weekend. Douglas, for those of you who are curious, was minister of culture in the Black Panther Party and designed all their posters–rally announcements, commemorations, calls to action–as well as their official newspaper. I was fascinated by the pieces on show, by how they ranged in tone from pure propaganda to deeply felt testaments of a cultural revolution. The exhibit included articles showing the connection with Algeria (the influence of Fanon‘s theories, Eldridge Cleaver‘s flight to Algiers, the support for the Panthers in post-colonial North Africa) and with other countries of the non-aligned movement. It was interesting, too, to see how Emory Douglas contributed to the branding of the Black Panther image with the consistent use of black berets, army jackets, and rifles in representing party members. (This reminded me of a show I saw a couple of years ago at the V&A museum in London, about Alberto Korda’s iconic photo of Che Guevara. The revolution will be branded!) The exhibit was curated by Sam Durant, and it’s only open for another week, so if you’re in the L.A. area, hurry up and see it before it closes.

Photo: “Power to the People” poster, by Emory Douglas

The Coens’ No Country for Old Men

I finished work early yesterday and went to the Laemmle in Santa Monica to catch a matinee of the Coen brothers’ new film, No Country For Old Men, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel by the same title. The story is about a welder named Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles on a handful of dead men in the Rio Grande, along with a bag full of cash–about 2 million dollars. He takes the cash, setting off a chain of events, which, although easily guessed at, are nevertheless completely suspenseful. On Moss’s trail are a psychopathic killer (Javier Bardem), a sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), an assassin (Woody Harrelson), and a handful of unnamed Mexican drug dealers. (Unnamed, and undeveloped as characters, something that is true also of two of the three females in the book.)

In some ways, the Coen brothers’ adaptation remedied a couple of the problems in McCarthy’s otherwise excellent novel. One is that a crucial scene that resolves what happens to Moss is missing from the book, but not from the film. The other is that, in the book, it’s easy to miss the fact that the story is set in 1980 (the date is hinted at the beginning, but not mentioned again until about halfway through the novel.) Obviously, in the movie, the sense of time was immediately clear. The film also gives us the pleasure of hearing McCarthy’s pitch-perfect dialogue spoken by talented actors. (You know how, after watching Fargo, you left the theater and tried to speak like Frances McDormand? You’ll be doing the same with Tommy Lee Jones in No Country.) But there are also ways in which the Coen brothers’ movie doesn’t quite compare with the novel. The one female character, for instance, that did something other than plead with a man or serve him food or coffee ended up being cut entirely from the film. Still, the level of craft that went into making this adaptation is really, really remarkable. Not to be missed.


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