The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, December 31, 2007

Naysayer of the Year

I didn’t want to have to be the one to denounce everyone’s favourite movie of the year. I’d much rather end 2007 in harmony with all mankind, film critics included. But I can’t keep quiet any longer, not with Away From Her making it onto so many Top Ten lists (the Guardian, Salon, CBC).

I remember the day I brought it home from the video store. I was excited. After all, I’d only heard good things about it. The New Yorker’s David Denby called it a triumph. Not bad for a Canadian movie! And first-time director Sarah Polley was barely in her twenties when she decided to bring Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” to the big screen. Like many others, she’d read the story about an elderly couple’s experience of Alzheimer’s in the New Yorker. Unlike everyone else, though, she bought the rights, and cast Julie Christie in the lead role.

Confession: I read that story when it first appeared eight years ago, but I didn’t begin to realize how amazing it was until late 2004, when Jonathan Franzen reviewed another bunch of Munro stories for the New York Times. He explained that Runaway was too good to even talk about and focused instead on another collection from three years earlier, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, which closes with “The Bear.” He goes through this story, detailing just how complicated and tricky it is.

I wanted the movie version to be as good as the Franzen précis, but that may have been asking too much. I don’t know the reasons behind it, but moviemaking seems to require simpler, more straightforward stories. Although it makes sense that Polley’s spin on marriage would be less conflicted than Munro’s, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Her Fiona and Grant seem “lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux literary”—everything, Franzen so eloquently argues, Munro is not. At Polley’s old age home, the nurses read Alistair Mcleod aloud to the patients. In Munro’s, there are only supermarket paperbacks. In the movie, the residents are losing their minds, but not their political awareness. The addled Fiona, at one point watching the news, likens an American invasion (on Iraq?) to Vietnam. At the end, the viewer has a positive image of marriage: There are ups and downs, but it is worth it! Does that sound like Munro to you? (When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on the philosophy of feminism. One day, the professor devoted an entire lecture to the disadvantages for women of marriage and motherhood. At the end of the class, she rushed off, joking wryly that she had to meet her husband and child. That moment was more Munrovian than this entire movie.)

There are other problems as well. Denby writes that Polley shows “an impressive feeling for the spiritual meaning of landscape, as when Fiona, on skis, finds herself isolated in the snow and, looking around at the open fields, experiences the terror of a life without signposts,” from which I have to conclude that there are some clichés that are uniquely Canadian. Hand any Ontario girl a Camcorder and she will go out into the snow to film some trees. When I watched this movie, I wasn’t thinking so much about my future as an old person but as my past as a student in high school photography class. (In those days, Clayoquot Sound posters, with their bottom-up view of imposing trees, were just starting to plaster bedroom walls across the country.)

The landscape is strangely girlish, the swearing, a little young (fuck, fuck, fuck, rather than Christ almighty or son of a bitch), but the one teenaged character, an unhappy visitor to the old age home, sounds like a grandmother. “I should be so lucky,” she says to Grant after he tells her about the strange circumstances of his marriage to Fiona. Should be so lucky? Please!

But don’t let this discourage you from watching the movie. By all means, see it. Then go back to the story and of course the Franzen review, and come back here to debate it with me. I await your comments! May you make many in 2008 ;)

p.s. My Gazette review of Louis Rastelli’s A Fine Ending here.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Anne, this is beautifully written. I did enjoy A"way from Her," even though it didn't match my mental image of the characters, especially the woman played by Olympia Dukakis. Also, the environment was more sophisticated than I envisioned. When I read "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" in Munro's collection, it had a powerful effect on me and I count it as one of my favourite of her stories. The trouble with movies is you have to watch someone's else's interpretation (in this case Polley's) of a story. I will say, though, that if I have to get Alzheimer’s, I want to look as good as Julie Christie. It's only fair.

Mon Dec 31, 03:32:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Anne C. said...

Tricia, based on your author photo, I have to say that that just might be an achievable goal. Happy New Year, by the way!

Mon Dec 31, 04:13:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Aw, thanks, Anne. Happy New Year to you, too. I like the even numbered years.

Tue Jan 01, 02:50:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Very good points, Anne. I thought the movie was okay, made thrilling by Julie Christie's beauty and the performance of the nurse character. What you've written reminds me of how I felt about Brokeback Mountain. The original Proulx story was so tough and plain- the opposite of the lyrical, sentimental feel Ang Lee drenched it in. I liked the movie anyway. But I loved the story. Same here. "The Bear" is actually brutal, I'd say. It has the feel of an anti-love story. It has more in common with Sartre's "No Exit" or some bloody Greek revenge tragedy than a hallmark TV movie. Part of the brilliance of the story is how disguised that bitter pill is, how easy it is to miss it all- just like in life. I'm not sure a film can do the same thing. There's too much information to control in a visual shot to make sure everything does double or triple duty. Munro crafts sentence after sentence that is a double-edged sword- how could the camera do that? In a way this is the opposite of the Proulx story- plainness, ambiguity. But the films are the same. Pretty. Beautiful even. (Maybe Ingmar Bergman could have filmed this story, with Sven Nykvist constructing the visuals in his meticulous manner. But they’re dead. And worse: gone.) Your post has made me wonder if I automatically adjust my expectations when I head to the movies. As if going to an elementary school talent night.

Wed Jan 02, 10:01:00 am GMT-5  

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