Monday, December 31, 2018

Quote of the Day (Music‘s John Oates, on Seeing ‘Night of the Living Dead’ After Dropping Acid)

“Oh boy . . . bloody, slack-jawed, bone-crunching zombies staggering and lurching around a grim Pennsylvania town in a movie shot in grainy 16-millimeter, and the three of us [Oates, friend and musical partner Daryl Hall, and Hall’s sister Kathy] sitting in the old sedan, eyes big as saucers and brains pulsing on what the fuck is happening. The fact that the movie was narrated by a well-known local newscaster named John Facenda (who many football fans will recognize as the longtime NFL films' ‘Voice of God’) made the jacked-up realism even more intense. In fact, we were more than a little freaked out, alternating our attention between the undulating outdoor screen and the car's side windows . . . paranoia washing over us with a growing, genuine terror that the zombies might actually be right outside the car. . . . ‘Wait ...what was that?!’”—Rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter John Oates with Chris Epting, Change of Seasons: A Memoir (2017)

I couldn’t let the old year go out without a bit of a chuckle, and this quote from John Oates’ enjoyable musical memoir fits the bill nicely. 

I never got around to noting the 50th anniversary this year of George Romero’s legendary low-budget shocker Night of the Living Dead. Scruples have prevented me from commenting on this film that I have never watched except for a scene here or there on TV.

But the little I have seen—plus Mr. Oates’ helpful (not to mention sanguinary) summary—confirms what a close relative told me back in the mid-Seventies about the film. “It’s the scariest movie I’ve ever seen,” the relative said. “The grossest, too. I was shaking when I got out of the theater.”

How can that heart-popping fear be topped? With the mind-altering substances that Hall and Oates took in their wild younger days, of course—days that they can laugh about now when they want to unbend after a show.

As for me, I don’t need to see this (literally) scene-chewing mayhem. Reality has its own various and abundant terrors. Do you think it’s an accident that The Walking Dead has lasted for nearly a decade on cable TV? Why?

"Zombie fiction and movies, when they're good, aren't about zombies. They are stories about people and how they respond," Jonathan Maberry, author of many zombie books (e.g., Rot and Ruin), told Newsweek’s Raina Kelley back in 2010, just as The Walking Dead premiered.  "A zombie is a stand-in for anything we fear: pandemic, racism, societal change, depersonalization of humanity, pervasive threat and how this threat affects people. It's the core of drama and a never-ending blank canvas."

In zombie movies and television, best friends can turn on each other, no longer able to recognize their common humanity. Thank Heaven that didn’t occur in the sedan where Mr. Hall and Mr. Oates sat huddled against the evil they (wrongly and hilariously) believed surrounded them…

Photo of the Day: Early-Evening, Late-Year Radiance

In the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by the sight of a tree on Van Brunt Street, just off the major commercial street in my hometown of Englewood, NJ—and, specifically, how the tree not only has kept its leaves so late in the year, but how the leaves appear in the light. They lend something bright and special to nights even as we slip in earnest into winter, convincing me that light exists even in deep darkness.

Not a bad thought to end the year. May each of you reading this find your own radiance in 2019!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Flashback, December 2008: Fitzgerald’s ‘Benjamin Button’ Finally Hits Big Screen

Ten years ago this month, Hollywood finally achieved what it had pursued relentlessly but unsuccessfully for the past 80 years: a big-screen adaptation of work by F. Scott Fitzgerald that was as successful commercially as artistically. 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of his 1922 short story about a month who ages in reverse, grossed $127.5 million in the U.S. and $333.9 million worldwide. (Five years later, after upteen misses on the big—and small—screen, Hollywood saw the novelist’s classic work, The Great Gatsby, gross $144,840,419 in America and $351,040.)  

Benjamin Button was in the race for the Oscars the year it came out, with 13 nominations, including for Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson), Screenplay (Eric Roth), Director (David Fincher), and Best Picture. But, though early handicapping placed it within striking distance of winning big, it lost Best Picture to Slumdog Millionaire, winning only in technical categories: Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects.

Those involved undoubtedly felt pleased by the results, especially considering that the property had languished in the form of limbo known in Hollywood as “turnaround” for over a generation. (Among those mentioned in connection with the project, at one time or another: directors Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Spike Jonze, and stars Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Jack Nicholson.)

Fitzgerald’s misadventures as a screenwriter are an essential part of his legend: the incandescent writer whoring in Hollywood in a job far below his talent, for an industry blithely uninterested in maintaining any fidelity to his work.

Given all of that, he would have had one good, long laugh over all the money that Benjamin Button made for everyone involved, starting with the fact that he didn’t see a penny of it, having died 68 years before it opened. But—if he didn’t hit the bottle first over the manifest injustice of it all—he would have guffawed over how it repeated a pattern he was so familiar with from his own days writing for the movies: virtually none of his original creation ended up being used.

Even in the only film for which Fitzgerald earned a credit, Three Comrades (1938), producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz used only about one-third of the original screenplay. Far less than even that was used in Benjamin Button. Among the key differences between Fitzgerald’s work and the film:

*Locale: Instead of the story’s setting of Baltimore (home of Fitzgerald’s much-loved ancestor, Francis Scott Key), the movie was shot in New Orleans in order to take advantage of Louisiana's filming discounts.

*Time frame: Instead of starting on the eve of the Civil War, Benjamin’s half-century-plus life story on film begins near the end of World War I.

*Upbringing: Though Roger Button is continually discomfited by his son’s unusual physical changes (so much so that at one point he wishes Benjamin had been black), he adapts and even turns the family business over to him; on film, unable to deal with the both the death of his wife in childbirth and a son he regards as monstrous, Mr. Button (renamed “Tom”) leaves Benjamin on the steps of a nursing home, whose barren African-American housekeeper, Queenie, raises the "boy."

*Chief female character: Roth and Fincher changed the first name of Button’s love interest from Hildegarde to Daisy (almost certainly in tribute to the novelist’s most famous female character, Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby).

*Tone: Roger Ebert’s review may have put it most succinctly: “Fitzgerald wrote a comic farce, which Roth has made a forlorn elegy.” Fitzgerald might have engaged in a bit of hyperbole when he declared it “the funniest story ever written,” but all these years later it’s hard not to chuckle at the multiple ironies he sneaks in, as when he notes that Benjamin’s father-in-law, General Moncrief, grew more amenable to the marriage “when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his ‘History of the Civil War’ in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers.” Little such levity survives in the film. While Fitzgerald's Benjamin emerges from the womb with a beard and smoking a cigar, Fincher's protagonist merely looks awfully wrinkled and wizened.

Anybody encountering Fincher’s adaptation is going to simply have to accept or reject it on its worth as cinema, because it virtually no details of characterization, time, setting, or plot are common between the printed and “screened” word except for the aging-in-reverse premise.

In contrast, the 2013 Great Gatsby, despite serious miscasting (that means you, Tobey MaGuire, as Nick Carraway!), a misbegotten soundtrack, and overall excess, sticks fairly closely to the original plot.

In another sense, however, Benjamin Button reflects the spirit of Fitzgerald in its overall melancholy arising from the beautiful but evanescent moment. It’s entirely appropriate that another time-haunted novelist, William Faulkner, especially admired Fitzgerald’s original tale. 

Even in a comic fantasy tale such as this (imagine a Twilight Zone episode written by S.J. Perelman), Fitzgerald could not resist displaying how besotted he could be with feminine beauty, as in his description of the first glimpse of 50-year-old Benjamin of the late-teenaged Hildegarde: 

“The girl was slender and frail, with hair that was ashen under the moon and honey-coloured under the sputtering gas-lamps of the porch. Over her shoulders was thrown a Spanish mantilla of softest yellow, butterflied in black; her feet were glittering buttons at the hem of her bustled dress.”

But, as Benjamin grows younger instead of older, Fitzgerald is equally precise in describing how male desire can cool toward wives who can’t help but age:

“In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-coloured hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery – moreover, and, most of all, she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it been she who had ‘dragged’ Benjamin to dances and dinners – now conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.”

Such ironies are absent from the screenplay. Roth had engineered a similar tonal shift in his Oscar-winning script for Forrest Gump, in which the tart description in Winston Groom’s novel (“Bein’ an idiot is no box of chocolates”) was softened to the far-better-known “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.”

In an interview with Jen Yamato of the review-aggregation Web site Rotten Tomatoes about his script for Benjamin Button, Roth noted that a primary influence on it was the death of his parents: “Without them having passed away I couldn’t have written this.” 

Surely, that same sense of loss and grief informs a remark by Mrs. Maple to the film’s Benjamin: “We're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?”

Admirers of Fitzgerald’s short story should not believe that they will see onscreen even a reasonable facsimile of this most experimental entry in the writer’s considerable body of short fiction. But in the unabashed lyricism endowed by Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button accidentally hit upon how to solve what long bedeviled anyone hoping to translate to cinema the ecstatic lift of Fitzgerald's novels, what he called in Gatsby man’s “capacity for wonder.”

Photo of the Day: New York’s ’21,’ Outfitted for the Holidays

I took this photo of 21 Club—or, as it’s generally known in New York, simply “21”—the week before Thanksgiving, by which time the entrance to this former speakeasy sported holiday d├ęcor. Its famous balcony (a portion seen here) features 35 multi-colored ornamental jockeys, donated by some of the best-known stables in American thoroughbred racing, owned by the likes of the Vanderbilt, Mellon and Ogden Mills Phipps families.

I wonder how many people who’ve dined here since the turn of the millennium have had even a clue of the famous people who have dined in this legendary dining and entertainment spot—people like feared columnist Walter Winchell, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (on their first date), Alfred Hitchcock, and every President since FDR except George W. Bush. 

A huge part of the business history of the 1980s took place here, too: It became so inextricably associated with the “power lunch” that it was only natural that part of Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street would be filmed here.

Quote of the Day (Francis Thompson, on Seeking ‘The Kingdom of God’ in the Universe)

“Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?” —English Catholic poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907), “The Kingdom of God