There’s a more adept portrayal of human suffering in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II than in all the lollygagging throughout John Krasinski’s timid adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Sally Potter’s iPhone-destined, fashion world monologue-a-thon Rage. Throughout Zombie’s slasher yarn, there’s inevitably a close-up, as the killer comes crashing down upon his prey, where the victims’ eyes drift heavenward and a brief, unspoken plea for mercy passes between them and monster. As they meet their doom, Zombie dwells on the mayhem in real time, each brutal pulverizing blow given resonance. You would think this example of pulpy shock cinema couldn’t hope to compare with the more supposedly contemplative American independent cinema, much less surpass the emotional, cinematic, and humanistic impact of a world where academic characters and fashion moguls gaze into the heart of darkness within their navels.
But indeed, I’d argue that Rob Zombie’s film is a more accurate representation of what it means to be a human being in our modern era, because we still feel dread, fear, pain and love. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, especially, is less about any of those emotions than it is about the assemblage of contemporary young actors digging their way into the literary monologues of Wallace. As a series of short stories—or sketches, really—there’s a sense of modern horror to the interviews, where disturbed individuals attempt to either justify, rationalize, or discuss their aberrant behavior through pop psychology keywords, self-help guru-speak, or just plain old American can-do spirit. They’re harrowing because the most sinister motives can be buried underneath layer after layer of doublethink to the point where the speaker might circle back around and feel terrified of themselves without comprehending why.
Wallace’s masterful prose doesn’t translate to cinematic language, and I doubt it would work in any context other than the page. (I hesitate to think what a filmmaker might do butchering Infinite Jest.) But John Krasinski’s movie adaptation is an excuse to enlist his friends and have them use tricks, tics, gestures, and mannerisms to the point where the performances jump beyond naturalism into a kind of phoniness best described as “actor-y.” They’re either doing too much or not enough. When reading the Wallace text, the dialogue seems pretty even-handed; when put into the mouths of actors there’s an unnecessary urge to jazz it up.
I became conscious of Ben Shenkman noodling around with his hands as stage business, or Julianne Nicholson primly concentrating on her inner monologue, or Chris Messina striving for a kind of “yeah, whatever” blasé version of selfishness that has become an indie film cliché, or Josh Charles earnestly attacking a monologue to a series of girls where he gets to “have fun” with different facial hairs and outfits. All the while I knew these were performers striving to “go for it” in a way that makes me wonder about the very techniques of young American actors.
Maybe it’s the director’s fault, but seeing so many bad performances all lined up in a row made me consider that few actors go for big, brave choices and raw, aggressive, messy human emotion, and that there’s a similar fear of the Spalding Gray approach where one does as little as possible, as well as of the strange vibe we catch from actors working under the spell of David Lynch. I’m generalizing, perhaps, but these are the thoughts you have when you’re bored out of your mind, begging for mercy.
So many critics hated, hated, hated Brief Interviews with Hideous Men at Sundance and other festivals that I kind of wanted to root for it, to say, well, even if it was a mixed bag, at least Krasinski was adapting the work of one of our great modern literary giants. But, while suffering from boredom at his failed attempt, it got me thinking that there haven’t been any good adaptations of Herman Melville either, or Leo Tolstoy. Krasinski sets himself up to fail, but I couldn’t even feel that good about saying, “Well, at least you tried,” because he makes so many choices I found excruciating: A Greek chorus made up of two guys talking about the female psyche drift in and out of the pastiches; a powerful monologue by Frankie Faison about the humiliating life of his father (a restroom attendant) is intercut with images of the father as a young man standing in the latrine, proudly standing stock-still in his white ice cream suit, while a dialogue ensues between the father of the past and the boy of the present that folds time in the most obvious, theatrical way you could think of. Techniques like this make the audience feel so far ahead of the filmmaker, you’re wondering what stupid idea he’ll come up with next to open up Wallace’s world.
A dialogue between two businessmen has them start in a coffee shop in real time, then they walk into the past where one of them discovers a weeping hippie girl, and as the teller of this story (Christopher Meloni) attempts to dig into his soul to tell his passive-aggressive friend how his heart was touched, we see Meloni doing that acting thing again, where he indicates to the audience that he really, really wanted to do good, wants to communicate this to his friend, but he just can’t, he can’t, and so he just says, “Then I fucked her!” The screenwriter has worked overtime to make a two character dialogue scene into a cinematic feast, placing the characters at various locales and telling the story in montage. And the director keeps the camera moving because that, too, is “cinematic.” And the actor works overtime to show us he’s really feeling something, goddamn it. The whole sequence is exemplary of how Brief Interviews is a conceptual flop.
As for Sally Potter’s Rage, it also has actors telling stories to the camera, all of them standing, one at a time, in front of multicolored screens. Judi Dench is a fashion critic, Steve Buscemi is a grizzled photographer, Jude Law is a cross-dresser, Bob Balaban is an impresario, John Leguizamo is a bodyguard and Eddie Izzard is a suit. The movie is supposedly being made on an intern’s camera phone and these actors embody characters eager to share their experiences about the bitter, hypocritical world of fashion. Does that sound remotely interesting to you? Not at all, I’ll bet, because you’re already way ahead of the movie—we know inherently that the fashion world is superficial, and having a gallery of famous personalities line up and preach to the art house converted is nobody’s idea of a good time.
Even the actors seem a little curious as to why they’re there. But the satire slips into ludicrous laugh-inducing ridiculousness when a series of off-screen accidents and murders start taking place, and the fashion world attitude towards real world death is, guess what, shallow! Misery has no context in Rage because the characters behave towards it in an inhuman way; Halloween II is more savage, more blunt, and dare I say more optimistic in its belief that lives, even those of dirtbag hicks and roadside strippers, are precious. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men wants to be a fearless, lethal depiction of men and women and their baggage, their lies, their ingrown hostilities, but it can’t match the terror of Halloween II, which imagines the loss of a daughter as akin to being struck down by lightning, or reveals the tangled web of familial neurosis in ways that are as upsetting now as they were during the era of Greek tragedy, where curses had meaning and analysis was a matter of moral life or death, as opposed to the safe haven of a moral gray zone where everyone, deep down, is full of shit. I don’t think David Foster Wallace believed that, I don’t even think Krasinski or Potter are going for that, but sadly that’s the miserable place in which they flail, and where their movies die.