Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Second by Second Retro Diary of my Impressions on the Anna Karenina Trailer

So I love Russian Novels.  Among all authors, Tolstoy is eclipsed in my opinion only by Dostoyevsky.[1]  But that is a stylistic and ‘body of work’ assessment.  I think that you could make a credible [2] case that Anna Karenina is the greatest work in the history of the genre.  But regardless of the relative merits of these great authors, I think it is a pretty safe assertion that AK is one of the 5 finest novels of all time.[3]  And now they are making a film.[4]  So I am going to be one of those annoying bloggers who is so protective of a text that I’ll post a preemptive evaluation of the trailer. 
But, come on, this isn’t Twilight or even Game of Thrones.[5]  You could even argue that taking on a text from the classical cannon like this bears more responsibility than LOTR.  So I have produced a blow by blow retro-commentary [6] of my initial viewing of the AK trailer.  Also I decided to add an quasi-quantitative measure that I am going to call the NM –Nervousness Meter – which is a scale of 10 (not nervous at all, 100% excited) to 0 (certain this will be a train wreck[7]) which will allow me to plot the emotive arc at the end.
There is probably very little difference between someone who writes a rant parsing every second of the Twilight trailer and someone who does the same thing with this film …but I did the latter anyway.


0:00-0:06 (NM =6.5) – Adaptation is hard enough if you have a thin text like Pride and Prejudice or even a thematically simplistic one like the Hunger Games.  It is just tough to translate genres.  So ‘book purists’ are often simply dismissed by pointing this out.  I am usually among those who do so.  But if AK, simply cannot be adapted to a 2 hr film[8] because of its sheer scope, depth of characterization and complex of intertwining themes that depend on both of the former…I’d prefer it be left undone.[9]
Still, I was excited that a story I cared about was becoming a film.  So the ‘nervous meter’ started pretty optimistic:
0:23  – (NM = 6.5 - unch) Hmm, Keira as Anna?  Just from the gestalt I would have gone with Rachel Weis[10] or someone, I don’t know, Russian?  But Keira is sufficiently striking[11] and has a good track record with period films, in my opinion. 

0:29 – (NM – 6.5) Jude Law is fine as Alexei[12] (though when I heard he was attached to this film my thought was, “outstanding, he’ll be perfect as Vronsky” – I wonder if that means I’m old). The Vronsky character also seems totally acceptable from a gestalt perspective too (I know nothing about the actor, but it doesn’t matter much…dude is an empty cavalry uni…he’s not that challenging to act). 
0:47 –( NM = 7) These scenes they are showing look and sound great.
0:51 – ( NM =9) OK, I’m in.  There is only one director I would have accepted… Joe Smith.  And we got him.  Direction is a 100% win.  Atonement was as incredible (I wrote a piece on it) and I doggedly defend the superiority of his 2005 Pride and Prejudice[13] adaptation against the BBC truthers.  He is the epic virtuoso that this story deserves.  And that makes a lot more sense of Keira, too.  She is Smith’s leading woman.  If we want him, we get her.[14] I can talk myself into this.
1:01 – (NM = 7) ‘A Bold New Vision’ – from the interviews I read this means that most of this is filmed on a stage as a metaphor for ‘the stage of the Russian aristocracy’.  This seems gimmicky[15] and a recipe for the one way this could go horribly wrong…deciding that Levin’s story is dull and that it is expendable to fit the time requirements of a feature film.
1:10 – (NM = 6) – Hmm, speaking of Levin.  We’re over half way through the trailer.  Where is he?  I’m getting a little nervous.
1:15 – (NM = 5) - So Anna just confused love with an orgasm.  This is in character.  That is precisely the kind of confused, shallow person Anna was.  But this is why she is such a tragic, cautionary character.  But I’m a little nervous that we are supposed to identify this as an accurate observation by the moaning, thrashing protagonist rather than the devastating error Tolstoy would have seen in it.  OK, don’t get too cynical…remember, Atonement was stark and honest…and trailers are meant to get people to films.
1:30 – (NM = 9) – And there’s Levin, and that threshing scene (one of my favorite moments of the book) looks great…[16]
1:31 – (NM = 8) …hold on, is Levin being played by a Weasly …
1:32 – (NM = 6) …um, this guy seems like kind of a tool…
1:34 – (NM = 4) …yikes, that was not much Levin (3 seconds?), and no Kitty, and what we got made him seem like a pompous, d-bag.  OK don’t panic.
1:33 – (NM = 3.2) rewind[17] …hold on, there’s Kitty.  Um how old is she?  She looks 12!  Now we’ve got a pompous, lecherous, d-bag.  Don’t panic.  Smith is setting up a caricature so he can turn it on its head.
1:41 – (NM = 3.5) No more Levin sightings (the narrative really seems to be centering on the affair), but I’m just thinking about casting a Weasly.  I guess I don’t mind casting Levin with a no-name.  It actually makes a lot of sense.  You don’t want such a complex, sublime character to have to carry the burden of the other performances on a famous actor’s IMDB page.  Of course Ed Norton[18] was the call here.  But maybe this guy killed the audition.  Maybe he spent all of the time in the last 7 years that he wasn’t flying around on a CGI broom working on a Russian commune because he loves this book so much and like Christopher Lee and LOTR, it has been his life’ s goal to play Levin.  I’m talking myself into this.
1:59 – (NM =4.8) There’s  Levin again…I think…
2:00 – (NM =3.2) …and gone.  He’s like a ninja.  You can’t actually tell if he was even there.  And that would be great...IF HE WAS A NINJA…But this isn’t a period marital arts film… he is a Russian farmer who is supposed to be the central grounding character of the story.  We should be able to tell that he was on the screen.
2:10 –(NP = 3.7) And, the train.
2:15 – (NP = 3.5) I don’t remember this much dancing in the book.


2:24 – (NP = 2) “You can’t ask why about love.” …?...What?...Are you serious?  Is that ironic?  Is that really the summary quote you want to leave us with?  Is that the central idea of the film? (It’s the tag line on the poster.) I realize that is an incredibly popular modern sentiment…but it’s absurd.  And that is why reading old books is a useful discipline.  It can force us to asses assumptions of our age that none of contemporaries would even think to challenge.  Old books allow us to encounter people who call BS on absurdities of modern culture to which we have become too accustomed to evaluate.  Did the film makers even read the book?  Was there another novel with that title?
2:26 – (NP = 1.4) What? The Weasly actor isn’t even in the top 4.  Does that mean that Levin isn’t a ‘main character?’
2:31 – End (NP = 1.2) …?...?...What?  Really?

Here’s the thing.  I recognize the limitations of adaptation.  I appreciate that an adapted work of literature becomes its own work of art.  And if a text as brief as Pride and Prejudice is difficult to pull of in a feature length film, AK is going to require deep, devastating cuts.  You might even be tempted to cut half the book…say, the Levin’s half.  From what I can tell, Levin is featured in approximately 4% of the trailer (a very generous 6 of 150 seconds).[19]  And the one line we get from him is stuffy and pompous.  But here’s the real issue.  From the trailer it seems like the themes of the film are not only not resonant with the themes of the text…they are the OPPOSITE!  It is one thing not to do justice to a text in an adaptation.  It is another to do violence to it.
You see, there are two big differences between AK and Madame Bovary that makes the former one of the great works of all time and the latter almost unreadable:
1.      Tolstoy is an HD author.  The imaginative pictures are crisper and the emotions calibrate with reality with a deeper resonance than almost anything I have ever read.[20]

2.      Tolstoy wrote himself into the story.  Levin is generally thought to be autobiographical.  And his story parallels Anna’s.  He has the same angst and unsettledness that she does.  He has many of the same disappointments and even the same self destructive tendencies.  Even in the latter pages of the book, after he has made better choices and, by any sane accounting, has forged a better life, “…he hid a rope so that he might not be tempted to hang himself, and was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself.”  Levin doesn’t find contentment because he is optimistic or simple.  He is haunted and dark.  But he finds contentment through a relentless application of just action towards the oppressed, hard work, faith and wise choices.  It’s not that he’s uninteresting.  He’s incredibly interesting.  But he finds his way in a life of substance, living for other people and for God.  And that leaves AK with the note of hope that MB lacks.[21]
It is not that I think that Anna isn’t well represented in the trailer.  She appears to be.  And that is why she eventually finds her life intolerable.  Anna is not a tragic hero.  She is just tragic.  She is cautionary.  Levin is the hero.  Levin also felt his life intolerable, but found a settled contentment in the careful details of a gritty real love, in hard work, and in just, loving action towards others.  He found happiness when he stopped chasing it.  He found love when it ceased to be the central quest of his life.  Anna was a narcissist obsessed with her own happiness and her own loves, and thus, both eluded her. 
___________________
[1] My brother and I periodically have a LT vs FD debate…and I take the latter.  This is mostly evidence that my brother and my relationship is built 35% on arguing and we have to manufacture stuff to argue about because we agree on most things that matter. (We disagree on politics pretty often, but like I said, we agree on most things that matter).
[2] If false. I have three words for you: “The Brothers’ Karamazov.”  But in my opinion, AK is a close second in the fictional literary cannon.
[3] Especially if you were to grade on a historical curve that takes into account the fact that much of the reason Stenger is great is not just Stenger himself but his debt to Flaubert and Tolstoy who, themselves, owe very little to anyone. However, I would argue that AK cracks the top 5 without historical normalization…though I realize that that might just be the fanboy speaking.
[4] I know it isn’t the first AK film, but I have ignored previous attempts.  For reasons I cover below, I’ll not only see this one but will make it the second film I see in the theater in 15 months.
[5] Ok, so I admit it, I love GOT…and hate it.  It is classic HBO, hours of compelling art and fine story telling – of the finest quality on offer in mainstream American culture… interspersed with disturbingly frequent 3 minute porn shorts.  And GOT amps up both of these.  Better storytelling and more porn.  (And it’s not like The Wire where the there was totally unnecessary nudity but it kind of fit in artfully and was more thematic than erotic.  In GOT they are ‘porn shorts’ in order to provide an erotic emotive subsidy to the story telling.  Which is sad, because the story telling stands alone and does not require an elicit dopamine subsidy.)  I have decided to watch it anyway.  We just close the laptop and/or fast forward when the inevitable porn comes on.  But I am not entirely comfortable with that decision.  So I do not endorse this show but I am watching it.
[6] This narrative device is borrowed from Bill Simmons who often does ‘retro-diaries’ of sporting events which are almost always entertaining.
[7] ****Spoiler Alert****: Pun not initially intended but I left it intentionally
[8] Novels like this are just begging for a John Adams/Band of Brothers type HBO series that has the time (and patience, b/c as much as HBO frustrates me, they are patient with their projects and characters) to develop these complicated characters and develop these rich themes. 
[9] I mean, for all our deficits the one commodity our culture has in great surplus is aspiring (and often talented) writers.  There is arguably as much writing talent working at book stores in LA as there is acting talent waiting tables.  If you are going to make up a story, don’t destroy a classical work…make new art.
[10] I guess I pictured AK as a particularly tall woman (standing eye to eye with the men in her life) who, while not necessarily  voluptuous (I actually never wondered about her precise shape or dimension), would have a bit more, I don’t know, woman to her.  There is one point in P&P where I describe KK as looking as if she ‘is desperately in need of a sandwich.’
[11] Which is the way I pictured Anna.  Not necessarily the most beautiful woman in the room but someone who would immediately attract attention when she walked into one.
[12] From the extended scene they put out, he might be the highlight of the film.  He seems to absolutely nail a difficult character.
[13] Speaking of Pride and Prejudice…if you haven’t checked them out already, I have definitely enjoyed the “Lizzy Bennet Diaries” – a revisiting of the P&P story in a series of contemporary, fictional vlogs. 
[14] And I know this wasn’t a consensus, but I thought she was great in his other two films.
[15] A thin artistic excuse for cost savings if I wanted to be cynical…but we are only 61 seconds in…so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.
[16] At this point I was thinking, ok we got the Anna montage, now for an equal and opposite Levin montage.  I honestly believed that the next 40 seconds would play out like the 1 second we got between 1:30 and1:31. 
[17] This is not in real time.  I went to the imdb home page, found out who played kitty and then scanned the scene for her.  Turns out she is 24.  They only made her looks 12.
[18] Though, in fairness, I probably don’t so much believe he is ideal for the role as I think “if you want a role done right, just give it to Norton.”
[19] And I think 6 seconds is generous
[20] Tolstoy is the master of the visual and emotional world while Dostoevsky is the great master of the psychological world.  I read one author that said: You can be in St Petersburg in the winter in a FD novel and not even know it…he is so obsessed with the internal world of his characters that he loses interest in their external world.
[21] I mean, it would be like making an adaptation of Crime and Punishment that focused on Rodka and underplayed Sofya’s story because it takes too much time.  The former is not worth telling except in contrast and interaction with the latter.  Levin’s story may seem losable because it is not deeply intertwined with Anna’s (and because there is less sex).  But if you lose it, you alter the tone and content of the novel irreparably.

2 comments:

jeff ell said...

You got to love the Russia writers...and I'm impressed because your review is almost as long as War and Peace. My question is when are they going to make One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch a movie.
blessings to you!

angela Duren said...

I loved this so much Stan. Of all the great points you made, I think the most critical one is that this should have been a multi-episode series; there is just too much detail to cover. Making this book into a movie is like ordering an ice cream cone without the ice cream. This would provide a straightforward means to capture at least some of what is lost in a 2 hr movie and the format would be more compatible with the way the novel is written. Oh, and ditto about Levin. I loved him so much-he MADE that book for me. He is the fundamental substance-without him the really interesting struggles, thoughts, are gone.