The following essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment.
With its promotional campaign reaching a fever pitch, “The Girl on the Train” careened into theaters like some crazed locomotive manned by Jon Voight in a knit beanie, promising yet another affirmation of pop literature’s power in the box office. While sardonic vigilantes and humanist marine life remain the most reliable earmarks of successful commercial cinema, recent years have seen an increasing number of literary adaptations achieve blockbuster status.
Whether major franchises (“Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games”) or more critically competitive one-offs (“Gone Girl,” “American Sniper”), studios are growing increasingly adept at shuttling extant fan bases into theaters to watch beloved fictions and nonfictions translated to the big screen. Complete with readymade press points tied to everything from casting to the never-ending debate over adaptive fidelity, these films offer studios a jumpstart on the promotional groundwork that yields box office returns. Yet the very same scrutiny that generates media buzz around projects that are still years out of theaters might serve to bridle the creativity of the filmmakers ultimately responsible for their delivery—indeed, nothing shouts louder than a fan base betrayed.
Whether by over-investing in the visual effects necessary to translate magical realms to the screen or by catering to the flash point politics that make something like Chris Kyle’s memoir a runaway bestseller, big-budget adaptations are all too frequently doomed by their risk-averse nature.
Full of films that either adapt or thematically integrate works of literature in audacious ways, the Main Slate at this year’s New York Film Festival offers something of an antidote. Films like “Moonlight,” “Paterson,” and “Neruda”—among several others—explore the ways in which cinema can uniquely accent a story that was created for the page. While these three films meet with varying degrees of success, their shared spirit of experimentation speaks to an interesting direction within contemporary independent film: rather than trying to disappear behind the source material, they take a critical approach to the process of adaptation, introducing unfamiliar tropes to the screen, while teasing out the tensions between cinematic and literary mediums.
Certainly one of the most talked about films of the festival, “Moonlight” deploys a singular visual strategy to its source material, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The story of a young black man struggling to come to terms with his gay identity within impoverished and crime-ridden confines in Miami and Atlanta, “Moonlight” spans three distinct time periods, each featuring a different actor in the lead role of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). Surrounded by a ruthless subculture of illegal drugs—Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict, his surrogate father figure (Mahershala Ali) her supplier—and tormented by homophobic bullies, Chiron’s story is one of environmental oppression and stifled identity.
To convey this claustrophobic world, “Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton shoot in striking shallow focus, the faces of their characters floating in a blurry sea that does little more than suggest the world that surrounds them in the same way as a theatrical backdrop.
The physically staged gestalt of “Moonlight”‘s source material is equally evident in Jenkins’ approach to setting. The playwright and director’s biographies share striking parallels: they grew up mere blocks from each other in the same Miami neighborhood and attended some of the same schools, while both of their mothers struggled with crack addiction. Yet the world of “Moonlight” is surprisingly abstract, oddly devoid of detail or any real sense of community. The film’s scenes of dialogue are confined to dyads and triads dropped into settings stripped of any nonessential indicators of place: project apartments interchangeable in their shabbiness and desolate beaches containing nothing other than sand, sea, and sky—the imagined space of the theater translated to the screen with unimaginative fidelity.
Whereas that film’s dramaturgical staging and visual style might feel like incidental artifacts of its source material, the formal innovation of Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, “Paterson,” can only be read as a direct response to its literary inspiration. Taking place in the long shadow of the 20th century American poet William Carlos Williams, Jarmusch’s film follows eight days in the life of a contemporary poet living in Williams’ beloved hometown of Paterson: a bus driver whose name is also Paterson (Adam Driver). Featuring poems by Ron Padgett, “Paterson” not only inserts poetic language into its cinematic world, but borrows from the tropes of the genre in building its rhythmic narrative structure.
Each of the story’s eight chapters, save for the last, begins with the same image: an overhead shot of Paterson and, usually, his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) waking up in their bed, soft morning sunlight streaming in through their bedroom window. This shot serves as the opening refrain of episodes that bear the shape of a stanza, each of the five work days that begin the film following a rhythmic structure built around Paterson’s daily routine. Rhyming images and vignettes dot these clusters of cinematic verse: the roll-call lamentations of Paterson’s gloom-and-doom co-worker Donny (Rizwan Manji), the poet’s battle each evening to straighten a mailbox that manages to return to its cockeyed position during his absence each day.
This metered structure soon starts to blend with the poet’s creative routine, lines emerging in voiceover and textual insert during his morning walks past the monochrome rectangles of Paterson’s downtown warehouses, which resemble the blank pages upon which he delivers his verse. When the weekend arrives, throwing this easy rhythm into metric flux, so too do Jarmusch’s modest stabs at dramatic stake-raising: the culmination of a romantic dispute at the local bar and a domestic disaster—involving a misbehaving Marvin—in Paterson’s own life.
Jarmusch’s ear for conversational naturalism seems to have dulled over the years, replaced by a lazy aesthetic fetishism that reached its ugly apex with 2013’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and “Paterson” features some of the same problems as his last feature. Both Paterson and Laura emerge, finally, as basically one-note creations, despite the best efforts of the actors who play them; though some of the inevitable vignettes that have come to characterize Jarmusch’s work land successfully (it’s fun to watch Method Man do just about anything), most feel stilted and underwritten. Yet even as Jarmusch’s writing may have grown stale, his sense of tone and pacing in “Paterson” is exquisite, resulting in a film that is formally innovative and inarguably beautiful, even as its narrative elements wilt under isolated scrutiny. Translated back to the page, “Paterson” might be an elegant and moving poem that nevertheless fails to stick with you.
Among the best and most inventive films in this year’s Main Slate, Pablo Larraín’s “Neruda” represents the most distant point on a trajectory shared by Jenkins and Jarmusch’s films. Focusing on an approximately yearlong period during the late 1940’s in which the Chilean poet spent in flight of arrest for his involvement in the Communist Party, “Neruda” may seem like fertile ground for trenchant ideology, but the director and his screenwriter Guillermo Calderón’s concerns are as much artistic as political.
“I’m not going to hide under a bed,” states Neruda, in acquiescing to Party leaders’ request that he go underground. “This has to become a wild hunt.” Towards this end, the film’s Neruda—a charmingly hammy fictionalization of the historical figure—invents Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), the handsome and moronic police detective charged with tracking him down. The son of prostitute who imagines his absent father as the founder Santiago’s detective force, Peluchonneau delivers deadpan perversions of right-wing party lines (“The poet is a public menace and an unforgettable lover”) while dreaming of the status the successful completion of his mission would afford. It isn’t until about two-thirds of the way through the film that Peluchonneau realizes he doesn’t exist.
This isn’t entirely untrodden ground. Many artists—in film notably Charlie Kaufman, who pulled back the curtain on his own writing and production processes in films like “Adaptation” and “Synecdoche, New York”—have made a point of breaking from the reality of a fictional world, drawing deliberate attention to its fabricated nature. But Larraín’s new film rises above the self-aware, characteristically postmodern quality of much of this work.
The metafictional hijinks of “Neruda” stem not from a deconstructionist impulse per se, but rather an ambitious desire to serve the legacy of the man himself—political radical, flamboyant hedonist, poet. Rather than aiming to create a definitive character study, “Neruda” approaches the task of biography (or “anti-bio,” as he has called it in the press) with the same romantic energy and poetic license with which Neruda might have tackled his own work.
This doesn’t preclude criticism of Neruda’s armchair marxism (“When communism arrives, will we all be equal to him or equal to me?” asks one member of the Communist rank and file), nor does it caricature a man whose words were the voice of a people, quoted “every time history tramples them.” Rather, it gives Neruda the chance to write his own legacy, inserting the very process of creation into the story of the creator. The result is so vividly realized that the fact that this isn’t Neruda’s vision at all, but the filmmakers’, when remembered, seems largely irrelevant. Historically reckless and transcendently original, “Neruda” is a poetic vision of a poet’s life. A wild hunt indeed.