Naysayer of the Year
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.