Monday, September 19, 2011

Books Read and Movies Seen - The Hedgehog, the Aliens, the Maniac, the Beachball, the Corsican and The Help

Before I was a cinephile, I was a bibliophile. I still read more than my friends but it is impossible to read as much I used to since I'm a slave to the rep house schedule. There is a common perception that books are "better" than films. Books stimulate the imagination while films force feed mental pablum to the masses. I can't argue that stereotype given much of what comes out of Hollywood. If nothing else, I hope the reader of this blog will appreciate my attempts to sample a wide range of "serious" cinema...although I may have to go through a pile of horse manure to find the pony.

When I read fiction, I frequently don't fill in the details. For example, faces become blurred when I read fiction. I don't imagine the faces of the characters. I imagine the characters in an abstract and noncorporeal sense. I certainly don't imagine soundtracks to enhance the story. So when I see a well-made film, it gives detail where there would have been none if I had read the story. Beyond that, the best films are made by creative types who can enhance the story in clever and ingenious ways. In short, a well made film can trump my imagination; I'm not sure if that is high praise for certain filmmakers or an embarrassing revelation of my infertile mind.


I have a friend who used to be an English teacher. When we were in high school, I read much more than her so it was a bit of surprise that she became an English teacher. After college, she overtook my reading pace. She has subsequently moved on to be a guidance counselor but she still seems to read voraciously as she sends me books to read periodically. I have my own reading list so the books pile up.

One of the books she gave me was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read it about 18 months ago and greatly enjoyed it. It was with great anticipation that I awaited the film adaption. Originally written in French, the novel was made into a French language film in 2009. I watched the film earlier this month at the Landmark Bridge.

The Hedgehog starring Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic & Togo Igawa; directed by Mona Achache; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

The plot centers around Renée Michel (Balasko), the concierge at a luxury apartment building in Paris. I'm only familiar with concierges in upscale hotels who get tickets for the guests at sporting and entertainment events. Mme. Michel is more of a building superintendent - she cleans the commons areas, puts the trash cans on the street, signs for packages and lives in the ground floor apartment. Mme. Michel plays the part of a concierge quite well - soap operas always on the television, curt, efficient and vaguely ignorant. However, she is concealing a secret. Mme. Michel is an autodidact, quite intelligent and possessing an enviable library of classic literature and philosophy which she hides from the tenants.

The novel delved into class issues and the personal reasons for Mme. Michel's behavior but the movie glossed over much of it. Mme. Michel's youth and late husband were discussed at length in the novel while they were barely mentioned at all in the film.

Whereas the film gave short shrift Mme. Michel's character development, it enhanced the character of Paloma Josse. Paloma is the 12 year old daughter of one of the families in the building. Precocious and morbid, Paloma has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. She is tired of the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of life. This might be dismissed as teenage angst but Paloma also possesses a keen mind and impressive artistic skills (I don't recall this from the novel).

Despite living in the same building and have similar interests in literature and philosophy, Paloma and Mme. Michel's lives barely intersect until Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese diplomat moves in. Ozu immediately senses that Mme. Michel is much more than she appears. He quickly grows bored with the other tenants and begins friendships with Mme. Michel and Mlle. Josse, the only two interesting tenants. Ozu, with the help of Paloma, begin the slow process of drawing Mme. Michel out of her shell. I won't give away the ending.

In the book, Ozu claimed to be a distant relative of director Yasujirō Ozu but in the film, he denies any relationship. One of the pivotal points in the book and film is when Mme. Michel brings a DVD (or was it VHS) of one of her favorite films, Ozu's The Munekata Sisters (1950). There has been a spate of Ozu screenings in the Bay Area over the past two years. I'm hoping some programmer teams up The Hedgehog with The Munekata Sisters.

Despite enjoying the book more than the film, I still was entertained by the film and recommend it.


By chance, I learned that the novel Starship Troopers is on the official reading lists of the US Marine Corps and US Navy. I didn't now the service branches had official reading lists and I certainly didn't think the source material for a universally panned 1997 film would make the lists. It turns out Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein won the prestigious Hugo Award in 1960. Curious about a novel could be so respected but the film adaptation so reviled, I read Starship Troopers.

The novel has long passages about the state of society in the future. The main change from present is that to be a citizen in the future, one must volunteer in the military for two years. Civilians have all the rights as citizens except only citizens can vote and hold elected office. The book goes deeper into the main character's indoctrination into the mobile infantry. Heinlein uses the novel to promote individual sacrifice for the greater good of society. This is somewhat lost in the film.

I had had Starship Troopers on my To Read list for awhile but when I saw it was being screened at Midnites for Maniacs I obtained a copy. It was a quick read. I've seen parts of Starship Troopers on television for many years but still couldn't piece together the plot.

Starship Troopers starring Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer & Denise Richards; with Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown & Neil Patrick Harris; directed by Paul Verhoeven; (1997)

Starship Troopers roughly follows the plots from the novel. A few scenes are added that weren't in the book, a few scenes from the book were deleted from the film, a few characters were merged, etc. All this could have been dealt with satisfactorily. However, the criticism of the film is probably directed at the satirical tone the film took. Host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks stressed before the film that it was a satire. I'm not sure how anyone could miss that point after watching it. Perhaps some reviewers were looking for something closer to the novel.

The novel was intended for young adults but was earnest; as if Ayn Rand had tried her hand at science fiction. Now that I think about it, she did. The result is Anthem which was the basis for Rush's 2112. When I was a teenager, I was a huge Rush fan. I have found that statement ("I was a huge Rush fan") to be provocative and people make assumptions about me based on it. So I put it out there and let the reader believe what he or she will - in my youth, I listened to Rush and read Ayn Rand.

Starship Troopers wasn't a great film but I'm not as negative about it as others. Perhaps fans of the book resented Verhoven's treatment. Being the director of RoboCop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls probably hurt the reputation of his subsequent films. I note that Ficks has screened RoboCop before so Verhoven is becoming a staple of the Maniac's canon.

I preferred the book to the movie. The book was serious but aimed at young adults. The film was satirical and aimed at young adults. There was no co-ed shower scene in the book. However, the film had great supporting actors; particularly Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside. Not coincidentally, Brown & Ironside were closest to what I imagined for their characters while reading the book. Dina Meyer turned in the best performance (the gender of her role was switched from the book) of the three leads.

I can't recommend Starship Troopers (the film) but I have to admit there was some guilty pleasure at time (perhaps the shower scene has some merit).


The Midnites for Maniacs' triple feature that night was Aliens, Starship Troopers and Dark Star. I passed on Aliens but stuck around for Dark Star.

Dark Star starring Dan O'Bannon; directed by John Carpenter; (1974)

Dark Star was Carpenter's directorial debut. Ficks mentioned the movie was Carpenter's film school thesis. He also mentioned that many people who attended the screening during the original run were under the influence of recreational narcotics. I believe it.

Let me start by saying that Ficks needs to do a better job starting the films on time. Starship Troopers started around 30 minutes late. He then made up some time but the 11:59 screening of Dark Star started around 12:20. So you can guess what happened - I fell asleep about 45 minutes in. The last scene I remember is Pinback (O'Bannon) escaping the elevator shaft by climbing through the floor plate of the cab of the elevator.

Did I fall asleep because of the late hour or because the film was bad? Yes.

The main special effect was an alien which was a beach ball with a clawed hands as feet. The synthesized music and sound effects were annoying. Finally, the aforementioned elevator shaft scene went on and on.

While awake, I didn't enjoy what I watched. Carpenter borrowed generously from 2001: A Space Odyssey and inserted a lot more humor than in the films he would later become famous for. I read they were considering a remake of Dark Star. The best I can say is that I would consider seeing the remake.


The evening's theme for Midnites for Maniacs was Colonizing 'R Us. The three films had a number of connections. When James Cameron was writing the screenplay for Aliens, he was inspired by Starship Troopers (the novel) when imagining the space marines. The space beach ball was the partial inspiration for the alien in Alien, the predecessor film of Aliens. O'Bannon was credited with the screenplay for Alien. So the beach ball in Dark Star begat Alien which begat Aliens which begat Alien vs. Predator and so forth and so on.

The most famous marine from Aliens was Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). Her character was so popular that Gene Rodenberry and the creators of Star Trek The Next Generation based a character on her. Lt. Tasha Yar was originally named Macha Hernandez and Marina Sirtis was cast in the role. Denise Crosby and Sirtis switched parts before production and Macha Hernandez became Tasha Yar. Sirtis (who is of Greek descent, I believe) could pass for Latina but not Crosby.

I also have to give kudos to Ficks who has really stepped up his stage presence. I'm not sure how much is rehearsed and how much is extemporaneous but Ficks is very composed and articulate on stage. He has his tag line down to a tee - "I'm Jesse Hawthorne Ficks. Thank you for coming." It's a very simple exit line but he hits it with the solemnity of a Shakespearean actor.


I just completed Kevin Brownlow's Napoléon: Abel Gance's Classic Film about his love affair with the film, the making of the film, his relationship with director Abel Gance and his lifelong efforts to reconstruct the film. At times, Bronwnlow is prone to quote from multiple critics and trade publication on the reviews for various versions Napoléon. That's about the only criticism I can muster. Of course, I read the book because Napoléon will be screening at the Paramount Theater in Oakland on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, 2012.

The making of Napoléon was epic and Brownlow's efforts to reconstruct the film were no less impressive. Alternately fighting with and cooperating with such legendary figures as Abel Gance, Francis Ford Coppola and Henri Langlois, Brownlow used all methods at his disposal in his search for scraps of the original film. He's like Ahab except his white whale is the definitive version of Napoléon. Published in 1983, Brownlow has restored an additional 35 minutes since then which is the version that will be screened in Oakland next year. Brownlow's praise of the film and description of audience reactions has set a high standard that I hope can be achieved at the Paramount. I'm particularly looking forward to the triptych finale and the snowball fight.


As I was going through the stack of books I've accumulated from my friend, I noticed one was The Help by Katheryn Stockett. I'll start that book tomorrow. I'm curious as to the differences between the novel and film by the same name. The film was a comedy which was part of my criticism. I'll be eager to see if the novel strikes the same tone.

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