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  • Noel Vera
    Flower Power Noel Vera Filmmakers Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman s Adaptation is, to summarize the seemingly unsummarizeable, all about
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 4, 2003
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      Flower Power

      Noel Vera

      Filmmakers Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman and Donald
      Kaufman's "Adaptation" is, to summarize the seemingly
      unsummarizeable, all about flowers, orchids in particular--about
      their serenity, their ability to purely and simply be. That's what
      drew collector John Laroche (an unrecognizably grimy Chris Cooper)
      to steal them, using Seminole Indians as untouchable accomplices;
      what drew New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (a slyly funny Meryl
      Streep, far better than in her turgid turn in "The Hours") to
      Laroche, eventually to write a book about him titled "The Orchid
      Thief;" and what, finally, drew scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman (a
      balding, sweatily overweight Nicholas Cage) to try adapt (hence the
      film's title) Orlean's novel into a movie.

      Laroche admires orchids--their beauty, their implied sexiness (their
      name is derived from the Greek word for testicles), their absolute
      fitness at being what they are (mutated swamp blossoms); Orlean
      admires Laroche's passion for orchids--admires that quality about
      him that resembles orchids, a vegetable absoluteness of being (as
      Popeye might put it: "I yam what I yam"); Kaufman, in turn, admires
      Orlean's passion for passion, the way she has transformed her
      passion into a practically unfilmmable book--her way of adapting
      (hence, again, the film's title) to the philosophy Laroche
      represents, absorbing it, transforming it into a saleable product:
      the New Yorker-type novel. You might say this film is Kaufman's way
      of adapting as well--his way of enveloping his screenplay, Orlean's
      book, Laroche's obsession, orchids in particular and flowers in
      general into one neat, dense package. The picture is all about
      flowers, but it's structured like an onion bulb--layers upon layers
      upon layers, all tightly wrapped around each other; you cut into one
      at your own peril.

      It's an intricate juggling act; it's also a very funny film, with
      much of the humor, as with all of the best humor, stemming from deep
      pain--flowers don't achieve perfection all at once, but arrive at it
      after a long process, the death of countless generations; Laroche
      didn't come by his obsession suddenly, but after a lifetime of
      various obsessions, and a personal tragedy; Orleans had to deal with
      her own lack of passion, and her insecurities compared with the
      relatively stolid Laroche; Kaufman has to deal with his inadequacies
      as a social animal (he's a total failure with women), his ambitions
      as a writer, and an immense writer's block, which he does through
      constant and intense masturbation--not the most effective treatment
      for writer's block, I have to admit, but certainly a popular one.

      To add insult to injury, Kaufman shares his apartment with his twin
      brother, Donald (Cage again, brilliantly), another aspiring writer
      who shows every sign of blooming into an orchid--he effortlessly
      flirts with and picks up girls, soaks in writerly advice from
      scriptwriter guru Robert McKee (mercilessly lampooned here by Brian
      Cox), and quickly turns in a script--a commercial hack job without a
      single original idea in it that is immediately bought for a million

      Charlie is no orchid; he has to struggle to become one, with much
      sweat and effort and handjobs. This served him well in the past;
      because he belongs nowhere and is uncomfortable everywhere, he has
      learned to think "outside the box," to depend on his imagination to
      come up with wild concepts like the script of "Being John
      Malkovich," where he imagined people finding a portal that allowed
      one to enter the brain of John Malkovich (they promptly sell
      tickets, at two hundred dollars per person). "Being John Malkovich"
      won Charlie Kaufman awards, critical success and this task to
      adapt "The Orchid Thief;" beyond that, he's lost--he's never tried
      adapting material from others to the big screen before, and reading
      the book he eventually realizes that it's impossible: Orlean's book
      is too diverse and digressive to survive the transformation into a
      reasonably compact two-hour film. He's facing an imminent deadline
      for an impossible task, he still can't pick up women, and he's still
      masturbating furiously.

      Like "Being John Malkovich" before it, "Adaptation" has a wildly
      imaginative script that throws off tangential ideas and observations
      and flashbacks like so many spinning sparks (flashback "40 billion
      years ago…" to the origin of life; flashback "139 years earlier" to
      Darwin writing on evolution; flashback forty years ago, to Charlie
      Kaufman's birth). The basic idea--a film about the impossibility of
      making a film--is unusual but not totally original: J. Hoberman of
      The Village Voice pointed out Federico Fellini's "8½," about a
      filmmaker suffering from a creative block, as an honorable ancestor,
      while Mike de Leon's "Bayaning Third World" (Third World Hero, 2000)
      had two filmmakers meditating on the impossibility of making a film
      on Filipino historical hero Jose Rizal. The subject of flowers and
      of becoming, however, are Orlean's (by way of Laroche and, before
      him, Darwin), and Charlie does an admirable job of extending her
      metaphor to include his own condition, with Donald's for contrast.

      Spike Jonze, a music-video director, serves Charlie's scripts well
      with the most un-music-videolike visual style: calmly edited, coolly
      casual when presenting surreal effects (a seventh-and-a-half floor
      barely four feet high ("Being John Malkovich"), or dinosaur
      sequences that look freshly minted from a safari trip
      ("Adaptation")). He seems to be the perfect director for Charlie's
      scripts, as he grounds the most outrageous ideas with coherent, down-
      to-earth (but undeniably cinematic) images. He even manages to
      orchestrate the large cast--many of them playing real characters, if
      not themselves--into giving wonderful performances (Streep, in my
      opinion, gives a personal best).

      Perhaps the film's one major weakness is inextricable from Charlie's
      own flaws (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film):
      he seems to have trouble ending his films. "Being John Malkovich"
      is perhaps his most outlandish conceit, but after what seems to me
      to be the punchline of the premise--Malkovich entering his own
      portal--the movie seemed to lose something: a plausibility, perhaps,
      a teasing sense that all that's happened could really happen (when
      Charlie brings in the cover of Time Magazine in the film's latter
      part you know you've entered some kind of alternate reality); more,
      there was an elegance, a fairy-tale inevitability to events before
      that scene that you don't see in events after (those have a more
      desperate, one-thing-after-another quality). "Adaptation" has this
      wonderful sense of "this could really happen" until the point where,
      presumably, Donald Kaufman starts making his script contributions--
      Orleans as drug addict, would-be killer, and all-around bitch; a
      chase, a shootout, a horrific car accident. It's part of the joke,
      to be sure--Charlie has to resort to the ultimate humiliation of any
      literarily ambitious writer, ripping off other people's ideas--but
      the results are so extended and, it seems to me, slow-paced, that
      the joke stops being funny about halfway through. Robert
      Altman's "The Player" did a wittier and more thorough job of
      trashing itself, I thought, and in less time too.

      Which, ultimately, may not matter all that much: Charlie Kaufman is
      an intelligent, ambitious scriptwriter and you anticipate any of his
      new projects with interest, even if you suspect he may never follow
      through his amazing first and second acts with an equally amazing
      third. As for Charlie's twin brother Donald, well…I'll go watch
      his "The Three," I suppose, when it finally makes the big screen,
      but I wonder if I'm going to enjoy it; Charlie is a frail hothouse
      flower, seems to me, where Donald is robust crabgrass.

      (First published in Businessworld, June 27, 2003)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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