Sunday, October 10, 2021


Philip Haas's adaptation of John Hawkes' novel is likely the least celebrated of his 90's era literary adaptations. Both The Music of Chance and especially Angels & Insects garner far more praise and attention. But as much as I respect and respond to both of those this one seems to me an even greater achievement. Its lack of notoriety I attribute mostly to a lack of presence/distribution and an excessive concentration by many of those who have seen it upon what is perceived to be its more risible elements (such as much of Charles Dance's dialogue). But this misses what is remarkable about the picture.

Set in the idyllic splendor of rural, coastal Mexico it's an extended consideration of and elaboration upon the notion of a self created and sustained idea of paradise, of utopia. As such its location in what is otherwise an impoverished area provides some ironic inflection for the privileged characters whose vision this is. Charles Dance and Sheryl Lee portray a married couple extolling the virtues of sexual freedom and open relationships (the movie is pointedly set in 1970 whereas the book is far more oblique in regards to both setting and time period--it really is of the mind's eye there). Into their lives comes another couple who are less uninhibited and must be made to see the merits of such a lifestyle and worldview. Tragic events do follow but they are by no means schematically attributed to any clear cut moral deficiency. It's a subdued tangle of mixed motives and perspectives set against a landscape of heightened expression, resulting in actions that can be understood in a variety of different ways. The "story" could not be simpler on a superficial level but it's the richness of the themes and subtext that are grasped as though on the periphery of vision which leave such a lingering sense of fulfillment. Haas's overall aesthetic is also a fitting complement to the material, amping up all the inherent implications of the romanticizing and exoticizing inclinations of his characters. The story is told out of sequence, in a way that gives appropriate but subtle emphasis to each vignette or scene, and employs an effective series of fade to orange or red transitions straight out of the cinema of someone like Roeg. All of this, meanwhile, is accompanied by a deeply evocative Angelo Badalamenti score.

Though the film was released in 1997 it often really does seem like an artifact from another era altogether, another world even, in which its very particular and pronounced sexual politics might be more acceptable. It may be, however, that an incapacity to read style and understand stylistic expression could form another impediment to an appreciation of the film. There is indeed much in the dialogue alone which exemplifies this (such as Cyril describing himself as a "sex-singer"). But part of the specific difficulty here has to do with the adaptation of a text which is defiantly lyrical in its language and symbolic into cinematic imagery that is inevitably unyielding and literal.

I've loved this film since I first saw it when it was initially released on home video but I only finally read the book a few years ago. That was a singular experience for me as I will confess that I regard the book as "better" than the film but this means little since I regard the book as among the very finest pieces of fiction I've ever encountered, almost even a validation of fiction as extreme as that may sound. It's an astonishingly sustained treatment of the comprehensive, all encompassing lyric vision that opens up much further and goes deeper than the film. It also goes far beyond the film's most clearly suggested themes of emphasis upon the controlling power of the narcissistic individual ego. Many critics still like to point that out (as Roger Sale famously said, "There is cruelty here that, because unadmitted, is not even palliated by the relish of sadism.") but as far as I'm concerned part of the book's breathtaking accomplishment is that such critiques are noted ironically within and yet ultimately made to seem minor, inconsequential (much of this has to do with Hawkes' own view on his work vs. what critics just assumed he must be doing). I had a conversation shortly after I read it with a professor of literature who had written a piece comparing the book to the film. He came away very dissatisfied with the film unsurprisingly. And though his arguments are very good, convincing ones they simply fail to give the film credit for what it does do--which is aim for what it can that's within its grasp, the grasp of what cinema can do, and accomplish that with excellence. The true test was in returning to the film after all this, which I did and was relieved and somewhat amazed to discover how well it held up to that kind of scrutiny, the most penetrating kind I can imagine.

- Nathaniel Drake Carlson


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