Thursday, December 24, 2009


Years ago, when amateurism looked like something new, when it even seemed like an invention or discovery worthy of Time Magazine's yearly benevolence, I wrote -- and Heaven help me, enjoyed writing --an article on film adaptation. (I did not want to be part of a social revolution. I wanted to contribute knowledge to high school students who use the Internet for everything.) I enjoyed it for the pleasure of analysis, which is the complementary joy of English composition. Composing (writing) is bringing the stray herd of words and ideas together and making them all behave, making them function toward an end. Analysis is the breaking down of objects, and I love to examine and re-examine and then recombine. (My next will address how sad it is that such a fundamental concept as the difference between synthesis and analysis is forgotten and consigned to Philosophy class, when it's everyday knowledge. It could even be Business.) It is why we speak of "creativity," after all, for the ability to make a new thing from the old is as near to creation as most of us who lack plastic skills will ever get.

(A chimp has the ability to know that its reflection is an image of itself.)

In that article, I said that film adaptation (well, I implied that I said it) is not properly judged for literalness or inclusiveness or total fidelity, that a film is a separate artwork from its source and should function accordingly. How, then, is it an adaptation at all? If your movie of "Along Came a Spider" isn't going to try to be the same as the book I read, then how is it an adaptation? Well, I implied that films are adaptations of a thing in the original, not the whole. One adapts the theme, the aesthetic, the plot, or the worldview of the original, and then one employs the devices and strengths of film's art to do the thing the source did, whether that source was a ballet or a cartoon. One judges the adaptation by the achievement of the sameness within the newness. (It's like composition in that regard; the same words, but a new arrangement.) You keep the plot of the novel, or you achieve the same philosophy as the novel, or the same "point" as it, or the same worldview, or the same "effect" as it, but you use what film does to do it. If you succeed, you have adapted (made to fit). If you fail, you have not.

Adaptation is, therefore, an analytical composition. (The sentence in the Wikipedia article now saying, "it is derivative" was not mine, but amateurs are amateurs, and there's no stopping the boob Asp -- someone with a mania for categories and containers and little interest in the substances inside them -- from stomping along after one writes. I was ever comfortable with impermanence, as the achievement alone was my thrill.)

Alles klar?

There is a "however" coming in this essay. The "however" is with interesting people, like Stanley Kubrick, and dullards, like Roland Joffe. Kubrick's "The Shining" violates the plot, aesthetic, and theme of Stephen King's The Shining, but it's a better film than King's novel is a novel. (Some people say the same about his "A Clockwork Orange," which absolutely violates the intent and worldview and theme of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but I feel that both novel and film are great.) Kubrick's film is not the same at all. It is, in a sense, not an adaptation. However, his artistry and intellectual heft and cultural timing were such that we among the intelligentsia and literati and professoriate forgave him, blessed him, and honored him, and the cinephiles, who never cared about the source works to begin with, carried him about on their sloped shoulders, moth larvae and nits in a displaced nimbus around his frenzied comb-over.

Stanley Kubrick was an interesting person. He was canonized, in the academic sense. He became a lesson in film school, and dull wits always learn the wrong lessons from school.

The problem with dullards is that,
"Some are lost in the maze of schools
And emerge as coxcombs Nature meant for fools." (Pope)

The follow along directors after Kubrick are a loutish lot, half aware, half there. Where he could ignore almost everything Stephen King wrote in order to return to his solitary theme of the duality of the human psyche and civilization's Jungian shadow, he could do so because American, and western European society, was wretched, like Alex de Grand in "A Clockwork Orange" hearing the reminder of his cultural heritage, Beethoven, with the very same theme. How does a world of urban and urbane and polite and political deal with the shuddering bulk, the terrifying grin, the ravenous evil, of holocaust, genocides, and laissez-faire starvation?

[It's a long explanation. I urge you to look at some of the books on Kubrick. The author of The Short Timers, the collection of short stories upon which "Full Metal Jacket" was ostensibly based, wrote an essay for Esquire or The New Yorker or something that I read some years back that talked about his conversations with Kubrick during the adaptation and Kubrick's obsession during that process with Jung. That obsession, whether articulated in Jungian terms or not, is present throughout Kubrick's films. To be too brief: imagine that we have an inherited savage in our subconscious, a violent, gleefully hateful thing that is not the "id," but the negation of civilization. Civilization has to let that creature out in a safe form, if it is to function. Individuals in tightly controlled and anesthetized societies must reconnect with the savage, or else the savage will emerge in a crazy way. Wouldn't it be a good thing for a Jew after the war to examine that, to see in the holocaust and Mi Lai alike an expression of the savage in every apple faced youngster? Wouldn't it be good to take intellectuals, the ones partly to blame for the rise of the mechanized evil of the Reich, and make them confront their own culpability?
Don't believe me. It's ok. They're just movies. The point is that other people think this is happening and so are happy to see a novel by Stephen King turned into a meditation on how suburban marriage (and what would become the main text of "Fight Club" as the "feminizing" of men) can be another control that is susceptible to the Shadow.]

The little shoal of broken heads, scattered wits, and eager tits known as the other directors married the self-congratulatory Film World with the despair-induced coma of post-Modernism ("post-mortemism" is an old joke, but I think there's merit to it, because post modernism is not merely a collection of works without a manifesto, a series of nervous tics without a disease, but it is also a profoundly despairing "movement," in that it proclaims the vaccuum of Movement art; whatever emptiness we may now see in movements, giving up the effort is rather cheap) to announce "Whatever it is, it's alright." Oh, Donald Kaufmann's "Adaptation." doesn't count, so don't even bring that up.

No, if you'd let me...

Look, it's just that it's...

Ok, fine, let's do talk about it.
"Adaptation." doesn't count because it is an examination of adaptation. To say that it is an adaptation that examines adaptation is incorrect, because the adaptation within the examination is merely more cogitation. As a film, it is purely discursive. There is no "inside" to it at all. The film is completely outside itself at all times. Every element of the film, whether visual or spoken or gestured, is not a reference to a world, but a reference to potential references. Each thing is a question, not a statement, and certainly not a statement about the art object that is putatively source.

Now, can I proceed?

No? Well, we'll have to argue about that particular movie some other time, then. Better yet, go to Film Comment and get cheers from the chorus. Meanwhile, I'll while away the mean.

So, these vacuoles that I'm referring to -- wretched creatures like the "remake" of "Wings of Desire" into "City of Angels" or "Bedazzled" or "Wicker Man" -- and the "adaptations" of works of literature like the Roland Joffe horror shows "Fat Man and Little Boy" and, of course, the most flightless, bloated, emetic turkey of them all, "The Scarlet Letter," passed themselves off as "different artworks." Anyone who complained that they had done violence to their originals got dismissed the same way that a fanboi is dismissed for saying, "But Rochester should never have blond hair!"

Because we had recognized that adaptation was not literalism, the film world had taken that as license to "riff on" source material. Because post modernism had used history in original works (like Mason & Dixon by Pynchon) freely as a metaphor, and because commercial media had begun to re-spin source tales over and over again (endless Christmas specials with the same Scrooge-vision for the regular characters of one's favorite TV drama or comedy), film makers had decided that the historicity and factuality of the source had no relevance. In fact, repetition or fidelity was "square" (or, when Gus van Sant did it in his "Psycho," "super post modern"), and so it was the duty of film makers to prove their artistic mettle by artless meddle, and every person unappreciative could be, should be, and must be, one tribe or another of Philistine.

What, then, do we do when new works, completely new works, use the names of old works? Do we say these are adaptations, when both the creators' intent (announced, usually) and execution are not to adapt any aspect or element of the original, but merely to "riff on the classic" or "tell a story the original author didn't get?"

Let me put a case to you away from film to make it clearer. Rod Stewart, who is a fine soccer player, sang a version of Tom Waits's "Downtown Train" and had a top 40 hit, back when there were such things. Stewart's version reiterated the chorus quite a bit, as well as introduced an orchestral marshmallow in both speakers to occupy any quiet, and his producing machine also made sure that there were sweeps of sentiment that simplified any possible irony. Waits's song had been complex, melancholy, and even bitter, and Rod's song had been a rendezvous between lovers. Stewart said, though, that, while he respected Tom Waits, he thought he found things in the song that Tom had missed. So, folks: is he "riffing?" People who would hesitate to object to a violently free film will quickly sneer at Rod Stewart's comment, and yet he kept all of the same lyrics and generally maintained the chord structure. He changed the aesthetic of the song. He kept the frame and changed the heart, because his purposes were different from the original purposes.

Ok, so here's my position. When you adapt, then that's no big deal: you adapt. When, though, you "riff," you have some duty to acknowledge that you are creating a new artwork by creating a new title. If you wish to muddle about with the Gawain story to make it fit the 1950's audience, then have the grace to call your title "Prince Valiant."

Microsoft did a very, very evil thing some years ago when they decided that Java's cross-platform programming language was a threat to their goal of One Ring to in the Darkness Bind Them. They wrote their own version of Java that would run only on Windows machines. This was known as "polluted Java." They released it free, and all sorts of polluted Java got out. It was like a virus, some thought. The biggest thing is that people couldn't tell if they had "real" Java or polluted Java applications, and so they couldn't tell, without laborious testing, if their Java applications were cross-platform or not. Well, an "adaptation" of "The Scarlet Letter" that has Hester and Dimsdale grooving in the woods while Micmac Indians teach the Puritains how to tolerate is polluted art.

"Riffing" on Beowulf is your business. Have a ball! Prove that you have no slavery to history (or fact) by simultaneously insisting that Christian influences in the work are not historical (thus belying your historical freedom as a post-modernist) and thereby continue the work begun by the Nazi scholars but now in the name of your Robert Graves quoting Wiccan friends and merging "myths" from different continents, centuries, and ethnicities in the belief that there must have been some gigantic vanilla porridge of Story underneath that you -- you clever dickens, you -- can decode. Go on! Have fun. Be a director who claims that Beowulf bored him at age 14 and therefore it is a boring work, and be a man who is so filled with satisfaction and self that he cannot realize that he has just admitted that his mind has not grown from early puberty. Go on! Get money for the project. Work with sinews and CGI to erect hundreds of thousands of tent poles in theater seats, and mistake that for interesting -- but do so under the banner of the U.S.'s PG-13. Declare artistry while feeding a multi-input, single-output media machine, and hope for a Christmas release and lots of dolls to be sold. Go on!

Do NOT call it "Beowulf," though. Call it "Wild Wolf, Monster Slayer" or "She Dragon: It's Really Hot in Here." Call it "Handsome and Grendel."

What is being done is not, simply put, adaptation. What the film makers are doing is not any attempt at adapting. It is an attempt at taking a title, of replacement. Roland Joffe wanted to replace Hawthorne's tale with his own, and Gaiman, the pleasures of The Graveyard Book notwithstanding, is not to be forgiven his involvement in the theft film of "Beowulf." As technology has allowed films to tell impossible tales faithfully, film makers have decided to cease even adapting. By itself, that would merely leave room for future films -- a future "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- but it is combined with a gleeful kleptomania and pollution.

Film makers, know this: Post modernism is no cover for theft, and it is no excuse for being a polluter. If you will not adapt, then do not steal. If you will take a name, then be aware that you risk pollution. There are stakes on the table, and some of us still care.

There are items in the cultural inventory that are not disposable. That is one of my objections, and I won't hide it. "Riffing" on a James Patterson novel does not bother me as much as "riffing" on George Eliot. The reason is not any dead white European snobbery, either, but rather than some items exist in a web of reference that constitutes culture, and when we release "polluted Java" into the stream, we are contaminating culture. Additionally, though, the simple fact is that this is not an act of adaptation. It is an act of erasure and rewriting. When the author or or studio executive has that in mind, then the result will be a new thing. It's much better if we notice that The Lion King is Hamlet than that Disney studios called it "Hamlet" and made it with cartoon lions singing Elton John songs, while they claimed that they "saw things that Shakespeare missed in the story" or that "Shakespeare is boring" and so they wanted to improve on it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Why We Must Fill In Afghanistan

In Scythia, Bactria, and Colchis, we have innumerable problems. We have one of those tipping points in history where things have gotten flopped over, where offense is greater than defense, or defense is greater than offense, or where the methods of crazy are better than the strategies of police or polite. Something is wrong.

Never fight a land war in Asia, the man said. Well, sure. How about a vertical insertion?

Right now, the United States has a new decision on Afghanistan, not an old one, and yet we seem to be confined to speaking only in metaphors and language from the past. I am going to break with every single practice I have ever had, as a writer, and speak directly about a foreign policy matter. I will explain why I, and why I believe we as humanist and pluralist nations of the West, have to engage with the problem of Afghanistan. I am aided in this by the fact that the people who propose pulling out of Afghanistan are actually arguing for staying in place, but I am hindered by the irresistable poisoned honey of historical analogy.

First, let us deal with the one analogy that everyone will invoke sooner or later: Vietnam. Afghanistan resembles Vietnam in its political regime. Karzai, in the analogy, is either President Diem or, much more fittingly, Durong Van Minh, the corrupt leader who allegedly made deals with the Vietcong. Afghanistan is also supposed to resemble Vietnam in that the insurgency is “out there” with aid from another country and employing terror to paralyze and then capture the food/drugs of the nation. Supposedly, the U.S. military, which was supposed to have flubbed Iraq because all they did was learn lessons from Vietnam, is now incapable of dealing with Afghanistan, because it is just like Vietnam. Finally, Afghanistan is like Vietnam in that once we begin sending troops, we will be bled constantly by a defensive posture (either because we won't “get tough,” if you're a neocon, or because our brutality radicalizes the population, if you're a realist or suffer from sanity).

The problem with the analogy is that the President is right: it requires a faulty reading of history. Afghanistan is not in the same situation at all, and the Taliban is not offering communism. It is offering efficiency at the cost of freedom, fairness, and personal identity in a land where personal autonomy is vital. The defensive posture is always a problem, because it's always easier to inflict damage on a defender and run away than it is to obliterate a mobile force. This is why it was easy for the U.S. forces to take Afghanistan in the first place. Attacking someone who is trying to defend is easier, these days, than defending against someone who can come from any direction, including up or down. The problem of the Afghanistan government is critical, absolutely critical, because it means that the Afghani villager gets to choose between vicious efficiency or kleptocracy and insecurity. People may face dangers, but not for shabby treatment. Even with that granted, though, Karzai is neither Diem (the man who tortured his own people in his anti-communist crusade) nor Minh. He infuriates his people by acting like a tribal man, an ethnic man, and a war lord's friend, but not by being a tyrant. (Malaki in Iraq, incidentally, bears scrutiny that no one in the U.S. is giving. We so want that to be over that we have ignored another Very Bad Situation in the making.)

All of the mottos about Bactria the inviolate and inconquerable (Alexander the Great), where Napoleon and the British could not win, where the Soviets could not prevail, are beside the point. First, the U.S. demonstrated that its military could take and destroy the military and political leadership and civil institutions of the area. In fact, NATO troops could easily defeat any military Afghanistan ever were to develop. It's not even a battle.

Can any foreign power govern Afghanistan, though? That's the question our cliches haven't addressed. That's the question that gets to the heart of the case. Afghanistan had a centralized government in the 1970's. Although this was a brief period, it did exist. Prior to that and since then, tribes and ethnicities have opposed one another, and groups that migrated in or practiced religious variations six thousand years ago refuse to treat one another as fellow citizens. Karzai wants to help “his people” who speak his language and belong to his tribe, and other groups want theirs. He lets murderous creatures disgrace him and destroy governance because they are of his tribe. This is an educated individual choosing to adopt an atavistic model for social organization, a model that has within it an eternal animosity toward central government. It has deponent governments -- little centralized decision bodies -- based on the tribe and family, and it bears some resemblance to the satrap, but with no personal, blood, ethnic, or religious commander above the unit. It is pre-nation-state.

So long as all of the “leaders” of Afghanistan are leaders of tribes and populations, rather than leaders of places, districts, and persons – so long as geography and isolation mean that it is a set of perpetually warring tribes – no nation may govern Afghanistan, and there is no Afghanistan to govern itself. The very name is an arbitrary distraction. If we know for certain that there is no hope, in fact, of any 1970's Afghanistan ever emerging from this generation, then we would be better off thinking of districts and populations and fighting, organizing, building, and negotiating separately.

The Taliban introduces theocracy, but theocracy is vague. There is no magic in that. If you believe that there is something so mysterious about “theocracy” that we can only deal with it in the discourse that it sets for itself (holy war), then you need to look at your own history. All of Europe had experiments with theocracy, and the United States has had multiple adventures in theocracy (aside from Bob Jones University). From the Massachussetts Bay Colony to the Shakers, the U.S. has had its theocracies, and it is easy enough to study how they interact with stresses from outside. In general, they thrive most when they have an enemy. The best way to fuel a theocracy is to put on a Great Satan costume, for then you seem to justify the founding assumptions. Avoiding offense is impossible (see the rewards President Obama has received from trying to avoid offending Christian Fundamentalists in the United States: they call him the anti-Christ and see in his politeness proof that he is trying to fool them), and so the best way to win is to simply not play. Refuse to speak of winning and losing, of conquest and triumph. Do not speak of yourself at all. Speak of the population you are there for.

As for whether or not we must be there, when “it is impossible to win,” we must be there because it is impossible to win. Every person who makes the case that no army can prevail in Afghanistan reinforces the argument that our armies must prevail in Afghanistan.

I opposed the Iraq war. I was and remain ambivalent about the Afghanistan war. However, a nation-sized hole in the earth where the world says “No army can prevail” is very bad. There must be no such place. Somalia, the grand shamble of “failed states,” is very similar to Afghanistan in its tribalism, in the way that each group fights for its group identity and has no concept of a nation at all, but Somalia is, obviously, no place that world opinion regards as impenetrable. World opinion holds that Somalia could be “taken” in weeks but that it has no value to the world.

Afghanistan is important because we have said, for thousands of years now, that anyone who goes in there is safe from the nation states of the world. If you can get permission from the tribe (not the nation), you can do anything you want in Afghanistan, from grow opium to plan attacks on world trade. In the past, the stakes were not very high, because the thing that made one “safe” made the world “safe” from you, too: geography meant isolation in both senses. Now, though, one individuals can go in, embed, train, and, because of global transportation and trade links with Pakistan, India, and Iran, and because of proxy fights, fly away easily to fight elsewhere on a one-way ticket. Thus, if we say that Afghanistan is a place where one can be invulnerable, then the world's populations are all in danger, regardless of the threat. If al Qaeda were to disappear tomorrow and Osama bin Laden were to recant and repent, then the danger would be the same. The world's nations must not allow there to be a place that will refuse to organize and yet still benefit from global access and travel. That makes for a case of offense being far more powerful than defense.