Something Awkward This Way Came

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By Scott Ross

All movies based on great literature are, necessarily, diminutions of their sources. The best one can hope for is the occasional transmogrification that distills the essence of its subject: Horton Foote’s screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind, and even it misses, presumably due to length, one of Harper Lee’s central metaphors. There are, however, some titles whose technical innovations are so strong, and whose prose is so rich and ruminative (I’m thinking at the moment of Toni Morrison’s novels and Harlan Ellison’s stories, and the meta-fictions of Gore Vidal) they should never be touched by filmmakers. All their would-be adapters can achieve is a bare-bones fealty to a narrative arc, losing the essential, interior psychology — and the idiosyncratic dialogue, so dazzling on the page, which comes off as false when spoken by actors. High on the list of books that militantly defy adaptation are Ray Bradbury’s, and especially high is this Bradbury. In its 1983 Disney adaptation, nearly everything that could go wrong with a movie of Something Wicked This Way Comes, does.

First, the casting is off: Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade are, in the novel, 13 going strong on 14 (“Both touched toward 14; it almost trembled in their hands”) and I suppose for those who no longer recall the difference between 11 and 13, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson are perfectly adequate, if determinedly unexceptional. But as both boys look no older than 10 at best, their physiognomies further dilute their wan performances. But Disney, attempting at the time to stretch into a more adult market, was also trying to have it both ways — filming material that might attract adults while casting it with actors childish enough to appeal to those moviegoers’ offspring — and so achieved (Walter Murch’s wonderful Return to Oz notwithstanding) neither truly mature pictures, nor movies wholly appropriate for small children.

Additionally there are undercurrents of eroticism in the novel, both homoerotic (between Will and Jim, but especially on Will’s part toward Jim, an observation Bradbury would no doubt have disputed with vociferation) and heterosexual (Jim’s interest in the strange “theatre” in town of whose offerings he has caught furtive glimpses and longs for more and which one presumes are orgies being held in someone’s private home, along with his aching general desire to be older, a common dream which nearly always includes sexual experience within its yearning) and which the Disney concept cannot accept, let alone navigate — although the filmmakers shift desire to the barber, Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos), ultimately making him a prisoner of it. And however fine an actor Jason Robards, Jr. was, and as rich a portrait of Will’s aged father as he gives, Charles Halloway is only 54 in the novel, not 61…  and in Robards’ case, a hard 61, exacerbated by alcohol, that looks and feels rather more like 71.

Second, the screenplay, which not only reduces the poetic scope of the novel but alters its actions, sets what seems to me a deliberately timeless story in the 1930s, creates new characters (the double amputee Ed the Bartender), puffs up existing ones (Crosetti, Mr. Tetley, Mrs. Nightshade, Tom Fury the lightning rod salesman) or alters their narrative arcs and their characters for no discernable reason (The Dust Witch, Miss Foley), creates pat psychological alibis for Mr. Holloway’s inaction, blithely ignores period racial norms, turns the Cooger and Dark Carnival into Dr. Lao’s Circus, and literally reverses the deus ex machina of the climax. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Bradbury’s prose is a strange hybrid of craftsmanship and lyricism. He builds his stories and novels in a straightforward way, with strong plotting, but his sentences owe more to Thomas Wolfe than to the pulp tradition…” While I disagree with Ebert’s further observation that “the lyricism isn’t missed in this movie” (it’s completely missing) his take on Bradbury is apt. The man was a prose poet wed to pulp material, and his best work — Something Wicked, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, From the Dust Returned — sings. (His actual poetry hewed to rhyme, and was less interesting.) And if the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes owes a debt to Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, the progenitor of all creepy side-show stories, it’s one the book wears lightly, unlike the movie, which essentially rips Finney off.

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13 going on 11: Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

It’s hard to know who is to blame for the movie’s fatally confused script. Bradbury adapted his book not long after its 1962 publication and attempted to get the studios interested, unsuccessfully, for years. And while what’s on the screen is credited to him, the director Jack Clayton brought John Mortimer on to prepare revisions, a decision as bizarre as it was a betrayal of Bradbury. What in the British Mortimer’s background — he was the barrister author of the Rumpole series, remember — suggested him for this project? And that the Disney suits fired Clayton, reshot several sequences and dumped Georges Delerue’s lyrical score as “too dark” confuses the issue even further. The picture is such an unholy mess it’s almost impossible even to get angry at it; the stench of desperation wafts from it like a choking miasma.

One example of many should suffice to illustrate what I mean. In Bradbury’s novel, Dark (Jonathan Pryce) sends the Dust Witch — a truly frightening and unnerving figure, eyes sewn shut, a hag reaching out with her senses, not the sultrily sexy enchantress portrayed by Pam Grier in the movie — to scour the area for Will and Jim, whose names he does not know. She does so in a monstrous balloon, which Will shoots down with an arrow, diminishing (although not, alas, destroying) her power. In the movie, Dark instructs her to find the boys and — this is important —  bring them back. An eerie green mist is then deployed on the town, reaching out for the Halloway and Nightshade homes like a pair of ghastly hands. Does the Dust Witch then do as she has been ordered? She does not. Are Jim and Will grabbed, and brought back to the carnival? They are not. They are instead assaulted in Jim’s bedroom by armies of tarantulas, which they fend off together as best they can before suddenly awakening in their separate beds, in their separate homes, implying that the entire attack was nothing but a supernaturally shared nightmare.

I don’t know what purpose the sequence was meant to serve but whatever it was, the boys are decidedly not brought back to Dark. And wasn’t their specifically ordered abduction supposedly what mattered? If so, what was the point of what we just saw? I gather a more elaborate sequence was planned, one which would have made extensive use of computer animation for the first time, but was junked as too expensive. So why concoct a replacement sequence that makes no sense? I can only assume our not seeing the carnival coming together by itself as the boys watch near the beginning — which could have been utterly, if eerily, entrancing — was, similarly, a victim of the budgetary chopping-block.

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Dark: Jonathan Pryce…

Speaking of the Dust Witch, I feel that little was gained by casting Pam Grier in the role, especially as she has so few lines and such a vague raison d’être. (In the movie she is also, naturally, the figure in the ice at the beginning. So why is she not the Ice Witch, then?) Mr. Tetley (Jack Dengel) becomes a blubbering fool at the sight of her sitting alone on a Ferris wheel seat and hastens to join her, but however heavily veiled she is, she is quite obviously a black woman. And as the picture is at pains to tell us it’s set in the ‘30s, how many white men would have been willing to make such public idiots of themselves over a figure they in their most charitable moments would have regarded, with a contemptuous sniff, as a Negress? Similarly, where in the novel the Dust Witch goes to stop Halloway’s heart and is nearly done in by his laughing in her face, here she merely slows it down. Why would Dark, who intends running Will backwards on his enchanted carousel, returning him to infancy in order to stop his mouth, leave his father alive? He wouldn’t. (And while we’re on the subject of Charles Halloway, it should be noted that the movie turns him from a somewhat disreputable if autodidact library janitor into the town’s librarian. Could the people at Disney simply not imagine a man content enough to immerse himself in literature without making its custody his profession? One assumes so, since they also subject Dark to what in the original does Cooger in because, one assumes, they could not conceive of filming his end as a dead child.)

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… and light: Jason Robards, Jr.

The picture is filled with such frustrating inconsistencies and betrayals of the original material. Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) rather than being a favorite teacher who foolishly allows herself to be seduced by the house of mirrors and is ultimately rendered a little girl, becomes a termagant, angry over the loss of her youthful beauty, who is granted it again, but at the cost of her vision. Why? Why do Jim and Will spit invective at each other constantly, yet behave as if they love each other dearly when it suits the story? Why does Tom Fury (Royal Dano) dispatch the Dust Witch as if he was an avenging Ishmael and she (ironically) the great white whale?

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Pam Grier as a dustless Dust Witch

The movie gets almost nothing right, including James Horner’s replacement score, a conventional affair with a good theme and one neat percussive effect for the spider sequence which Horner all too typically lifted for his later score for Aliens. Only two sequences really work: The long scene of the boys hiding beneath the sidewalk grate in front of Tetley’s cigar stand, and the confrontation between Dark and Mr. Halloway in the library. And they succeed because they a) in the case of the former, hew closely to Bradbury’s original; and b) in the case of the latter, lift, shuffle and reassemble Hollaway’s dialogue to the boys before Dark’s arrival into a colloquy between the forces of seductive darkness (Pryce) and strained light (Robards), suiting striking action to potent word as the Illustrated Man rips a magically illuminated page from Holloway’s father’s journals for every year of the man’s life counted down. That both sequences also give the movie’s leading actors (and the actors in the picture who most give over to the roles) something to play doesn’t hurt. Yet even this is muffed: When Robards leaves the library he wears a bloody handkerchief around his hand, but, unlike in the novel, we haven’t seen Dark crush it.

The mirror sequence near the end is rather more effective than most in the picture, but it elides the horror of Jim and Will being made blind, deaf and mute by the Dust Witch and turned into living wax figures beforehand. And the finale of the thing is as confused as the tarantula sequence, with Mr. Halloway giving only a hint of the capering hilarity that in the novel brings Jim back to life, as if actor and filmmakers were too embarrassed to make much of it. It’s such a fey conception in Bradbury you can’t, if you know the book, imagine how anyone could bring it off, convincingly, on screen. But the people behind this Something Wicked didn’t even try.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

The impossibility of reason: “Platoon” (1986)

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“Somebody once wrote, ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” — Letter from Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) to his grandmother


By Scott Ross

Seeing Oliver Stone’s breakout movie on its original release was one of those experiences that are so intensely felt that one rather resists a second viewing. But as I am in the process of re-evaluating Stone’s work, how could I not revisit this seminal picture? That Platoon rewards the returning viewer is not surprising; that what felt like dramaturgical flaws in it three decades ago* now largely strike one as much more subtle and integrated is a very pleasant surprise.

Although the picture functions as kind of exorcism for its writer-director, Platoon is not merely an exercise in cinematic memoir, and the assurance of its writing and direction strikes me now, as it did then, as heralding a unique talent, which indeed it did. The picture also reminds us of how appealing Charlie Sheen seemed at the time (the ardor, at least on my part, didn’t last long.) And if Platoon becomes an allegory, its central character pulled between father-figures saintly (Willem Dafoe) and Satanic (Tom Berenger), the metaphor feels less willfully imposed today than it did in 1987… although Dafoe occasionally seems too good to be true, especially in our first real glimpse of him, smiling welcomingly at Sheen from his hammock, and in a way that could be misinterpreted as seductive.

Platoon 4402522_stdThis seems as good a place as any to take note of the subsequent sequence of the “cool” soldiers dancing to Smokey Robinson. There’s a charming shot of Sheen being silently asked to join, declining, and being pulled to his feet that is almost a homoerotic parody of a high-school mixer, and the dance itself is both joyously comradely and vaguely romantic. I am not making a case here for a deeper reading of this moment. It’s merely an observation: Enforced single-gender institutions like the armed forces of the period make such social accommodations necessary — there are historic photos as well of isolated cowboys dancing together — but they’re very rarely depicted in popular entertainment, and just as rarely commented on. Billy Wilder did something similar in Stalag 17, and it’s seldom remarked upon either.

Although I’ve never been in a combat unit, it seems to me that Stone gets it all right: The heat, the rain, the insects, the boredom, the confusion, the terror… and, especially in that CIA-directed war, the creeping realization that there is no clear purpose to any of it. When the emotions of Sheen’s platoon-mates boil over, and precipitate atrocity against a Vietnamese village, the causes are demonstrably more than the convenient racism that accompanies them. (There were, as our engagement in Vietnam imploded, well over 200 documented cases of “fragging” — the murder by troops of their commanding officers — and behind them was precisely that advanced level of unmitigated frustration.) I recall this sequence especially well because, during it the film at the theatre in which I was seeing it with an older friend broke and when I turned to talk to him, he was staring straight ahead and unable to speak; afterward he, a former Navy man during the Vietnam period, told me he’d spent decades deriding the anti-war movement of the time. That My Lai-like sequence rocked him, on an extremely personal level, and forced him to confront his own, long-cherished, ideas. This is not merely evidence of the power of film generally, but the power of this film specifically.

It could be argued, I suppose, that Stone didn’t need to depict the battle for his surrogate’s soul as epitomized by the Dafoe/Berenger conflict — that the events of combat themselves were defining enough. I would counter that there is a classic dramatic unity to this central notion, and the only criticism I might make of it is that it may be a bit more explicitly stated than necessary. But opposition in drama is a basic unit of construction, and the gulf that lays between them is the abyss into which the traditional naïf must stumble on his way to deciding who he is, and what he believes.

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In the large ensemble cast, which along with Sheen, Dafoe and Berenger includes Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Kevin Dillon, Reggie Johnson, Corey Glover, Johnny Depp, Chris Pedersen, Richard Edson, James Terry McIlvain and Dale Dye, only John C. McGinley gives an actorly performance. But then, McGinley is nearly always bad; his continued career is one of those, like that of Anthony Heald, which defy rational explanation. He does have one good moment, however: When his plea for respite is turned against him, his face carries a look of such stunned disbelief that the cosmic unfairness seems to have cracked his mind irreparably.

Georges Delerue, who had composed the music for Stone’s previous picture, the incendiary Salvador, contributed a brief, lyrical score and which included a heartfelt passage Stone ultimately rejected in favor of the Barber Adagio for Strings. Claire Simpson provided the effective editing and the cinematographer, Robert Richardson, gave the movie both a pictorial lushness† and a stark reality that encapsulate Chris Taylor’s experience, particularly in the long siege sequence which climaxes the picture. And if Dafoe’s death scene, with its Christ-like symbology and Barber strings, still feels overstated, it’s undeniably moving for all of that. One of the primary lessons the movies teach us is that you can be manipulated and still experience genuine emotion.

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After the night battle

It took gumption to get Platoon made — Stone wrote his initial pass on the material in 1968, and ran into the predictable resistance to the material of studio suits throughout the ‘70s — and it’s the sort of impassioned work we may associate with young firebrands. In retrospect, this and Stone’s subsequent Born on the Fourth of July won acclaim (and Academy Awards) in part because by the ‘80s Vietnam was a collective experience many in both the general populace and the press could agree had been an appalling enterprise… even if the whole truth was still unknown by the one and suppressed by the other, as indeed it is to this day. It was only when Stone upset the status quo by extending his critique of American values into areas of recent political turmoil and accepted falsehoods peddled by both the government and that very same press which had previously lauded him that he lost his position as media darling, unlikely ever to be regained.‡ The love showered on him pretty much dried up with JFK, and the implacable hatred of that very establishment Stone rightly attacks has gone unabated ever since; I suspect they’d like to see Stone’s Oscars® taken from him now, preferably by force.

Text (aside from quotes from Oliver Stone’s screenplay) copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.”

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Berenger and Dafoe: Two fathers

*Pauline Kael: “The film has been widely acclaimed, but some may feel that Stone takes too many melodramatic shortcuts, and that there’s too much filtered light, too much poetic license, and too damn much romanticized insanity… The movie crowds you; it doesn’t leave you room for an honest emotion.”

†I’ve never seen this mentioned in criticism of his pictures but Oliver Stone has a clear affinity for the green of nature; it’s there in nearly every movie he makes. Sometimes, as in the recent Snowden (2016) it fairly pops off the screen.

‡Although he would like his movies to reach the wider audience they once did, and which the corporate media could turn toward his work if it chose to, I doubt Stone misses being beloved by the likes of The Washington Post or The New York Times.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross