Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Short Fiction and Film--Smooth Talk

Tom Cole, who used to write short stories, and later became a successful playwright and screenwriter, died last week. He was 75. Probably his best-known work was the screenplay for the 1985 film "Smooth Talk, which won the grand jury prize at what is now the Sundance Film Festival and helped start Laura Dern's career.

The film is based on one of Joyce Carol Oates’ best-known stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” which was first published in 1966 and reprinted in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories in 1970.

Of all Joyce Carol Oates’ stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has been the most anthologized and has generated the most critical commentary. After it was originally published, Oates added the dedication to Bob Dylan, for his song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” a song she called “very beautiful, very disturbing,” and which recalled to her the legend of Death and the Maiden. The story itself moves from intense psychological realism to surreal myth.

Oates has written about the background of this story and her reaction to the film treatment in an essay that can be found in her book, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (1989). She says she based the story on a psychopath in the Southwest in the mid-sixties known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson,” who seduced, and sometimes murdered, teen-age girls, a man in his thirties, he often mimicked teenagers in talk, dress and behavior.

The story starts innocently enough, with a description of the fifteen year-old Connie who, like many adolescent girls, sleepwalks through life listening to music only she seems to hear. Connie and her friends frequent the mall and she has begun some kind of sexual experimentation, “the way it was in movies and promised in songs.”

The central event of the story begins one hot Sunday afternoon when Connie is home alone—having refused to accompany her family to a barbecue—and two men in an open jalopy pull into her driveway. She recognizes one of them from the mall the night before, but she knows neither and, as she talks with the driver through her screen door, the scene becomes more and more dreamlike. The driver introduces himself as “Arnold Friend,” and his passenger as “Ellie,” but something is wrong about both of them. For one thing, Arnold’s language—the rambling patter with which he assaults her—is out-of-date. In addition, although he wears the standard 1950s dress of jeans and tight shirt, he has trouble walking in his boots, seems to be wearing a wig, and is older than he appears. He invites her to come riding with them, and Connie is mesmerized by his incantatory words. He knows intimate details of her life that no stranger could know and threatens her family, and she feels helpless to resist him. She opens the door to a “land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.”

As usual with a Joyce Carol Oates story, this one seems carefully planned and calculated. In my opinion, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty have done this “mysterious stranger” type story much better, and indeed, Oates owes them both a great debt here. However, it is a very “teachable” story, probably because it is so calculated. And the film, with Laura Dern as Connie and Treat Williams as Arnold Friend, is a particularly effective adaptation. Mary Kay Place plays the role of Connie’s mother, and Levon Helm plays her father.

Both the story and the film are divided into two parts: the establishment of Connie as a character, the typicality of her life as a young girl just getting ready for high school and just getting nervously but romantically ready for sex, and the dramatic, dreamy encounter with Arnold Friend. Laura Dern looks too old to play a 15-year-old, but Oates says she seems so perfect for the role that she may come to think that she modeled the fictitious girl on Dern.

Whereas the dramatic encounter occupies most of the story, the background story of Connie and her friends and her parents occupies most of the film. The film focuses more on the mother’s relationship with the daughter than the story does, for the mother knows what stage the daughter is now entering and both fears for her and is envious of her. The tension between fantasy and romance and reality occupies both mother and daughter.

The music of James Taylor, especially the song “Handy Man” serves as background. There is one particularly effective scene of Connie and her two girl friends at the Mall, with Taylor singing “Is That The Way You Look?” in the background. The girls engage in little play-acting games over the boys they see at the Mall. Cole and Chopra effectively dramatize the tension between childish playing and more serious sexual games here.

The arrival of Arnold Friend in his convertible with his little sidekick Ellie confronts Connie with an embodiment of what her mother calls her “trashy daydreams.” What Oates does in this scene is create a sense of supernatural invasion, even as we feel we are watching a realistic encounter. When Connie tells Friend “You’re not saying these tings. Nobody talks like that,” we feel she somehow seems aware that he does not occupy the same world that she does, but that somehow she has called him into existence by her own mixed desires. Oates calls the technique, one she uses often, “realistic allegory.”

Friend’s language, telling Connie “The place where you come from isn’t there anymore” and “This place is just a cardboard box,” draws attention to himself as a fictional character. What Oates calls “realistic allegory” was pioneered by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe, for in their stories we have characters who seem to be “as if real” encountering characters who seem purely fictional or allegorical. Melville’s Bartleby is such an allegorical figure in an “as if real” world, as is Poe’s Roderick Usher.

Oates ends her story with Connie being led out of her house into the “vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him,” an ending she says is impossible to transfigure into film.

And indeed, Cole and Chopra end the film more realistically, as Connie goes off with Friend in his convertible, which we see parked empty in an open field. He then brings her back home to her family. Her father seems oblivious as usual, while the mother, who senses Connie’s transition, hugs her. The film ends with Connie and her sister June. When June asks her what happened today, she says, “I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t go. Maybe I’m going out of my mind. It didn’t even happen.” Then she plays “Handy Man” on the phonograph and they dance, Connie asking June, “You still like that song?”

Short stories do not often translate well into full-length feature films, for film often has to provide more motivation than a story does. And indeed, the expanded expository first part of the film makes the story much more about Connie and her mother than the original story does. Moreover, the film makes it easier to discount this as a simple “date rape” seduction film. But, the screenwriter Cole and the director Chopra try very hard to maintain the ambiguity of reality/unreality that Oates, who has learned well from her betters O’Connor and Welty, constructs in the story.

I created and used to teach a course entitled “Short Fiction/Short Film” and a course entitled “Theory of Fiction and Film.” I will talk more about the problem of adaptation of short fiction to film in subsequent posts as the occasion arises. I am sorry that the occasion for this post was the death of the screenwriter Tom Cole.

In pace requiescat


Anonymous said...

What can I say? I keep having the impression that I am grasping the flour sifter wrong side up so that the wire mesh presents a convex rather than a concave surface for the flour to be sifted. I do occasionally encounter a story that comes to me right side up--but much of the time I fumble the handle and so end up making the story satire or some other objectifying experience rather than a lived through episode like a dream. I made Turn of the Screw a satire by imagining the governess as one pushed around by hallucinations who means well but is simply out of her depth and lonely.
I have been reading from Antonya Nelson's collections Nothing Right and Female Trouble and even those stories mostly leave me outside looking in. What can I do to read ontologically--something Eric Thompson (my best professor at Ohio) was always enjoining the master's students to do?

Lee said...

I'm not sure I agree about short stories and films. Often I find that the best adaptations to the screen come from short stories rather than novels, for example Brokeback Mountain.

Luscious Twinkle said...

And Secretary. ...