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Vol. 5, No. 3

The Creature Lurches From the Lagoon
by Rick Moody

Just got back from another conference where I talked about what it’s like to have your book adapted into a film. A weekend in Miami was promised. Sunburn and some pool time sounded pretty good.
    I shouldn’t be dismissive and ungenerous about questions on the subject of my book The Ice Storm and its adaptation, because the movie brought me a large audience that had no prior knowledge of my work. It paid for the down payment on my house. I got to meet interesting and gifted people. I got to witness the machinery of cinema up close. Yet I feel ungenerous just the same. When I hear them coming, these questions about adaptation, I feel my heart sink. I start to get bored almost immediately. Why? Why do I feel ungenerous and dismissive about the facts of my adaptation? Well, because I’m a writer, first of all, and I therefore make things out of words, and I think the multifary of earthly creation is best refracted in words. Sometimes I think words are so beautiful so flexible so strange so lovely that they make me want to weep, for their mystery and import, for their proximity to eternal mysteries. Words are the oldest information storage and retrieval system ever devised. Words are probably older than the cave paintings in France, words have been here tens of thousands of years longer than film, moving pictures, video, and digital video, and words will likely be here after those media too. When the electromagnetic pulse comes in the wake of the nuclear blast? Those computers and digital video cameras and videotape recorders that are not melted outright will be plastic and metal husks used to prop open doors. Not so with the utterances of tongues. Words will remain, and the highly complicated and idiosyncratic accounts assembled from them will provide us with the dark news about the blast. The written word will remain, scribbled on collapsed highway overpasses, as a testament to love and rage, as evidence of the wanderers in the ruin.
    Movies, on the other hand, are useless without parking lots, movies are useless without projectors, movies are useless without the crowds urgently required to make good on the large investments in movies. Were there but a single mating pair of Homo sapiens sapiens left on this planet, there would be stories composed and recounted, presented from one to the other, while two people would be barely enough to get a movie pitch off the ground, much less the thing itself (someone would have to be director and foley artist, gaffer, best boy, makeup person, stunt man, etc.).

 

~

The interest in relations between writers of books and the filmmakers is cultural. What does the culture want? What does that famished maw of culture desire? It wants to dine. The African elephant, I learned recently, requires four hundred fifty pounds of forage and fifty gallons of water every day, but the colossus of culture is far larger than the largest ever herd of these pachyderms. The vanished buffalo of the plains wouldn’t get close to its massiveness. Often we are it, the repast, we are the thing that culture needs. The people you meet on the street are the thing that the media finds appetizing, because it likes to observe conflicts between these people, between you and me, especially without having to get involved—as in Jerry Springer, Survivor, et al. A little conflict can provide a lot of nutrition, it can drive a narrative, and the bigger and more lasting the conflict, the better it works. So there’s the presumption of a personal conflict between myself and the makers of the film of my novel, as between all novelists and filmmakers, There must be some conflict there, there always is. A political difficulty. Somebody has to get slain in the helter-skelter of this combat. Which is top? The movie or the book? Though this is like asking about the translation of a certain poem. Which is the better English version of the Odyssey of Homer? Chapman’s? Or that one that recently came out of the University of California? Neither of these translations is Homer, because there is no exact equivalent, Homer in English is not Homer, since his poem was written in ancient Greece, and Chapman’s was written in eighteenth-century England, while that recent translation was written in the United States of America, which didn’t exist at the time that the Greek epic poet was composing his lines. No exact translation. At the moment of a translation or adaptation is a loss, a falling away from the spirit of the original, a depletion. A photograph is not a thing, even a word is not a thing, but a cinematic adaptation of a word (a sequence of moving pictures) is by its nature farther from the world of the actual and is thus artificial, like the prose paraphrasis of a poem, a falling away, a capitulation to the ingenuine. Reporters and people who come to readings, they are keen to exploit this difference, this space of discrepancy and depletion, because it hints at a conflict. So what did you think of the movie?
    

 

~

Since I’m a failed musician, music is always pretty close to me when I’m working, and each of my books has had certain songs or records that were central to its composition. While I was writing The Ice Storm, I listened only to music that was released in 1973. I had piles of cassettes from the period, some progressive-rock monstrosities, some stuff from California, and a whole bunch of those Rhino Records samplers that specialize in songs like “Delta Dawn” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero.” I’ve thrown out a lot of these things since 1992, when I finished the book, so I can’t tell you exactly what was on them, but I did make a tape of ’73 favorites for Tobey Maguire, an actor in the film, which, it’s my impression, he didn’t like very much. The point here is that music is always implicit in novels, in mine anyhow, is always just outside the margin of the work. I had a friend who included a flexi-disc with his first novel, and there was a point when I thought about having my brother’s band record songs mentioned in my own book so that I might shrink-wrap these songs onto the novel when it was published. But this actual music would subvert the immanence of music in novel writing, the incredible power of music described in words, the music suggested by words, the very music of prose. Film, meanwhile, because it’s synergistic, brings the music out of the wings and into the production. This is an awesome responsibility, and it was one of the areas where I was most worried about Ang Lee’s film of The Ice Storm. Not because I had any doubts about Ang’s ear but more because what music was occasioned by the composition of my book was so close to my heart. Turned out that the studio financing Ang Lee’s film, since it had budgeted The Ice Storm modestly, didn’t leave much money around for buying well-known songs, and, anyway, Ang and producer James Schamus wanted to have an actual score, not one of those film soundtracks that merely traffics in the nostalgic radio music of an earlier time. That’s how we ended up with some recherché song choices as incidental music—“Dirty Love” by Frank Zappa, “The Coconut Song” by Harry Nilsson, etc. Meanwhile, what was interesting about the score (by the Canadian composer Mychael Danna) was that it sounded really Eastern to me. It had a lot of gamelan in it. Mostly, this score was used to accompany montages, landscapes, barren trees of New Canaan, and while it had nothing particularly to do with the era, it was eerily appropriate. Indeed, though the film of The Ice Storm now summons in me few feelings at all (I’ve seen it too many times), the soundtrack to the film, with that mournful score, can bring up in me waves of regret about the past.
    

 

~

I wanted to make movies when I was younger. I was at Brown, and they had a really good film program, and I had made a couple of super-8 films while I was in high school. Around me were Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon and others of their ilk, filmmakers gathering up their filmmaking ambitions. But I arrived at a decision, you know, that I didn’t want to collaborate with anyone that much, didn’t want to try to learn how to construct a story while negotiating with other people. I mean, of course, that the medium of cinema is inherently collaborative, as many have observed. Therefore, when you make the argument that a film reflects a director’s point of view, are you describing the medium as actually practiced? What about the role of the producer? Is Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory not a particular argument, rather than a conclusion? Every Irwin Allen production is like every other Irwin Allen production (Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno), as is every Jerry Bruckheimer film (The Rock, Crimson Tide, Days of Thunder, Top Gun, etc.); so when people speak of the director’s vision, are they not speaking likewise of the screenwriter’s vision and the producer’s vision, not to mention the contributions of editor or composer or cinematographer?
    It’s a Napoleonic ambition, writing fiction, wanting to be, first and last, the one responsible, the one whose name goes on the product, alongside no other. There’s no muddle, there’s no dilution of responsibility, no diminishment of control. Perhaps this is an old-fashioned thing, this presumption that the solitary artist is creator of the work, not part of a vast cultural force. In the context of adaptation, however, you the solitary artist are an occupied country. As with all occupied countries, you harbor a resentment toward the occupier. And the politics within your nation, after the occupation, will be contentious and Balkan.
    

 

~

The wobbly shot of the creature lurching forth from the lagoon, or rather the wobbly shot from the point of view of the monster, as it lurches forth, disconsolate, shaggy, confused, hungry: one of the rare moments when cinema tries to exploit a first-person narrative. It’s always a wobbly shot. The gait of the monster is never sure-footed. I’ve been on the wrong side of a few panel discussions with film-history experts on this matter. There are many such first-person moments in cinema, these experts observe, in e.g., Rashomon, where the different stories being narrated by the different characters are concealed in a third-person point of view, though they are actually in the first person. Often the gaze of the camera itself is held (by experts) to be the first-person voice of the director, but I think this argument is sophistry. It’s an attempt by artists stuck with an inflexible storytelling medium (cinema) to argue for flexibility. I’d suggest that film, almost entirely, is in the third person. In narrative filmmaking, anyway. In films in which the characters do not address the camera. Mostly, therefore, cinema renders depictions of community, people in collision, not depictions of individual consciousness, which is the province of language. Music feels like consciousness, painting depicts the sensation of observing, but language can describe the actual experience of consciousness, because it can record sensory data and the experience and interpretation of this sensual material. One of the first things you give up when you sign the option agreement in which your book is given over to filmmakers is this consciousness. If your book is in the first person, you may have to content yourself with a voice-over, often considered a difficulty by producers of popular entertainment. Or you may simply find that the point of view of your first-person narrator (in my book, he concealed himself as a third-person narrator, only to venture forth with the truth of his identity at the end of the story) is stripped away immediately, to be replaced, again, by portraiture of the community. Your first-person narrator may get more face time, but that will be the only vestige of his former role. This arrangement works well when it is drama that is being depicted, conflicts between individuals, but it is an arrangement that doesn’t at all favor the mysterious adventure of consciousness, the dreams and volitions and complexities of consciousness, the way one mood or habit of being merges with and becomes its opposite so fluidly. Consciousness is hard to make palatable in movies and is probably boring when it is attempted at all. There are some trade-offs on which filmmakers have relied in order to delude you into believing that this is human psychology being depicted here at the multiplex—a dream sequence, a flashback. But these equivalencies almost always feel cumbersome.
    Which reminds me, there’s a shot in The Ice Storm of a hard-boiled egg on a countertop. I could never figure out what that shot was doing in the movie. It’s only there for a split second, just before Joan Allen goes on her shoplifting spree. For a second, on a countertop, an egg, without a character, just an egg. Whose egg? Ang’s egg? James Schamus’s egg? My egg? Turns out it was meant to be the Ozu shot in The Ice Storm: the iteration of domesticity, as this domesticity gets left behind. See how difficult abstraction is to render in the movies?
    

 

~

Centrally, in both book and film of The Ice Storm, a boy is accidentally electrocuted. My apologies for giving away part of the story, but I imagine most people who care to have either seen the film or have heard about this electrocution from others. It took me a long time, while writing the novel, to figure out how to execute this poor, unfortunate boy, and it was a turning point in my life as a writer. Before that time, both in my first novel and as I embarked on writing The Ice Storm, I had felt confined by the difficulties of getting published. I thought there were certain ways that I was supposed to behave if I were going to get published. Poor Mikey Williams (he had his surname changed to Carver in the movie, for legal reasons) was the ritual sacrifice that enabled me to start thinking about what I liked to do as an artist, what material called to me, what my own voice sounded like, and so forth. In fact, the opening of the third section of the book, wherein Mikey meets his demise, summoned in me the beginning of the kinds of longer sentences that came to characterize everything I’ve written in the ten years since I finished The Ice Storm. I know, therefore, that Mikey’s sacrifice, as surely as if I were a Mayan priest and poor Mikey were laid out on the stone slab before me, made the gods smile. Because nature is disjunct, nature is cruel, nature is discontinuous, nature is lumpy not smooth. Children die, and planes go down, safes fall out of the sky. And yet cinema is that popular art in which no child is supposed to be slain. Again, there’s this matter of the very large investments. Are you going to kill the kid? This was reported to me as an anxious question lodged by the studio financing The Ice Storm, which studio was probably even more anxious when word came back that Ang and James, indeed, intended to kill the kid. In the seventies, you could still get away with this kind of thing: in The Conversation, say, or in Bonnie and Clyde, you could get away with a movie photographed in the dark, mortal hues, but not in an era of family entertainment. Adultery, child sexuality, accidental deaths of adolescents? Not demographically sound. And yet The Ice Storm got made. The sacrifice worked. Or maybe it was just Ang’s good-luck ceremony. On the first day of shooting. His ceremony involved a bowl of rice and some bowing. It was dignified and strange. And it worked.
    

 

~

I liked going down to the set when they were making the movie of my book. I also liked leaving the set. Mostly I went while they filmed on location in New Canaan, Connecticut, because it was easy to get there. They filmed, the first day, in the park where I had once played intramural soccer. Soccer was the one sport I was good at back then, and I couldn’t help but feel that the triumph of my career as a soccer player would stand the film in good stead. Yet there were all these people around, big union guys driving trucks, trailers everywhere, a guy whose job it was to stand around looking like Kevin Kline until the real Kevin Kline was through with makeup, etc. It took two or three hours, this one setup, and by the end of it I was bored as hell. When I had imagined the story, in 1989 or 1990, somewhere back there, it was about isolation in New Canaan, about the ways that the WASPs of the Northeast could sit surrounded by people, nonetheless besieged by loneliness. Now here was this gigantic production, with Teamsters, arc lamps, hair and makeup people. Would it be possible for all these people to produce this silence, this conversational fear, this embarrassment and discomfort of Northeastern WASPs on a crowded and disordered set; would it be possible for them to create the illusion of things they didn’t have around them and perhaps had never experienced? This gets to the uncanny feeling of adaptation, and by this I mean the uncanny in the way Sigmund Freud used the word: familiarity and discomfort in equal measure. Unheimlich. My experience was made all the more unheimlich in that the crews were actually in my hometown, one of my hometowns, anyway, and had requested permission to film at my old junior high school, right across the street from the park. This request was apparently denied when the town of New Canaan got a look at the script and, thereafter, at the book (they’d ignored my novel when it was first published). My own town refused to allow filming at my junior high! They said the book didn’t reflect New Canaan’s spirit! What could be a better example of das unheimlich? At least for this sojourner in the unearthly realm of adaptation. Eventually you begin to forget your childhood and remember only the photos yellowing in albums in the closet and you adhere to these photos as though they were themselves the memories. But even if the movie of your novel is not filmed in your hometown, das unheimlich still obtains, because of the collision of your imagination with the collectivity of the film crew, the director, the producers, the studio suits, the director of photography, the editor, etc. As when I saw the final cut: on a gray day in January of 1997. Ang and James invited me to one of those plush, underpopulated screening rooms in midtown with seats so comfortable that they ruin the local theater by comparison. There were six people in attendance, Ang Lee, James Schamus, myself, my father, my partner, Amy, and a foreign-distribution person I didn’t meet. Ang sat right behind me throughout, so that on top of other ironies I worried that I might sneeze or shift uncomfortably in a way that would make a mockery of the seriousness of his work. I remember beginning to sob at some point toward the end of Ang Lee’s Ice Storm, partly out of relief (because the movie was so good I wouldn’t have to simulate pleasantries afterward), partly because it was genuinely sad, but also because the story before me was so removed from my own imagining that it was no longer necessary to think of it as my own. I had successfully given away my book, and this was a bittersweet thing. The movie, that is, is the fraternal twin of your novel. Same family, but with only coincidental resemblances. The night they screened The Ice Storm at the New Canaan Playhouse das unheimlich became actual and environmental: there was a winter storm. The trees and power lines and sidewalks and roads of my hometown were coated in ice.
    

 

~

The film world has too much riding on its investments to be less than beautiful. Not since my adolescence had I felt like the ugliest, most awkward person in a room, but I sure felt that way during the year or so they were making the movie of my book. For example, when I went to rehearsals, and met the principal actors in the film, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, and Christina Ricci. I was really scared, of course. I had never met a movie star before, not even once, hadn’t even seen one up close. Nonetheless, James Schamus, the producer and screenwriter, asked me to come to a rehearsal and have lunch with the actors who were supposed to play the Hood family in The Ice Storm. I think the idea was that Tobey Maguire, who was saddled with the burden of the Rick Moody part in the film, should see what an awkward and eccentric guy I was, in preparation for his performance. What I took away from that luncheon (besides the incredible brightness and intensity of the actors, particularly Joan Allen and Kevin Kline) was how beautiful everyone in the movie was. Of course, this had nothing to do with the book. The characters in the book looked like real people. They had bad skin, multiple canker sores, glasses. They were puffy, they didn’t exercise enough. These actors, on the other hand, were beautiful. They were so beautiful that you couldn’t think of anything to say in their company, except You are incredibly beautiful! Sometimes I was irritated by all this beauty, since it didn’t seem to have anything to do with my vision of how people lived. And at the party after the opening of the film Sigourney Weaver came up to me to thank me for writing the book and held my hand for a moment, and I was completely seduced and charmed and grateful that the actress Sigourney Weaver had read my book and was holding my hand for a moment. Still, at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that the culture of movies (leaving aside Sigourney and the kindness of her gesture) was trying to tell me something: We make beauty, and we are going to give you access to our beauty, and we hope that you will go back out there and say nice things about us. I would like to oblige, really. But is this beauty true?
    

 

~

If there’s a word that best summarizes my feeling about my own adaptation and those of some of my acquaintances, that word is ambivalence. Do I think that the film world and everything it touches is venal, cutthroat, cruel, thoughtless, careless, heartless, boorish, dim-witted, and sinister? Pretty much, I do. Do I think that book publishing, and therefore the endeavor of writing, can be just as bad? Yes, I do. Do I regret having signed the option agreement in my own case? No, I do not. Would I advise others to do so? Under the right circumstances, yes. Do I think that most people who sign option agreements have pleasant experiences? No, I think most of them suffer. Is suffering noble and good? Yes, in some cases. How do I reconcile all of these divergent and in some cases diametrically opposed opinions? I reconcile them by saying that these lines I have written here are written, and when what is written closes in on a true record of human behavior, it frequently finds that the behavior of humans, however well-meaning, is ambivalent, paradoxical, contradictory, morally ambiguous. Human consciousness evades tidy depictions. Human consciousness lists where it will; one day it’s at the movies, next day it’s taken up with chess, or baseball, or the best way to win money at the casinos, or how to beat the IRS. One day human consciousness wants to love all the children with HIV, the next day it wants to blow up thousand-year-old religious idols in the desert. To be human is to be, by turns, sacred and profane, magnificent and contemptible, light and dark, mirthful and humorless, and human consciousness can’t be contained in most of the vessels that would house it. Heroes and villains are one and the same, they have the same shape, they are indistinguishable, they ride the same color horses, and men in black are no more likely to kill than are men in lavender; great orators smack their kids; our leaders are failed family men and women. That doesn’t make them bad. All is ambivalence, all is complicated and strange, and try getting that into a movie. Go ahead and try.

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