Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Road

Last night I went to see The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the sam name, at the Rio cinema on Kingsland road. It was absolutely packed for opening night, but if you were going to put money on where in the country a film like the Road was going to sell out, I guess a converted Art Deco cinema in Dalston would be a pretty safe bet.

And so to the film. I'm a big fan of McCarthy's stuff, and so are a great many people – including Oprah Winfrey, which is a good thing if you want to shift paperbacks in the states (kind of like the Richard and Judy's ertswhile bookclub, if they'd been a single person, black, and American). Much has been said of his lyrical, spare prose, and specifically of this novel, how it doesn't have a conventional plot – something which many opined would make it an 'unfilmable' movie. In one of the the only negative reviews of the novel I've actually heard, science fiction writer Spider Robinson (who critiques it from the vantage of this genre and seems utterly bemused at the acclaim it receives) describes its narrative architecture thus:

"Absolutely no structure at all, no shape, no attempt at pace, no spine or direction or measurement"

Compounded with:

"The paragraph is the height of his thought's evolution, its largest unit of meaning'"

But then Cormac McCarthy is a master of the aphoristic sentence, and in a similar vein to his (literally) bloody wonderful Blood Meridian the narrative pretty much is the picaresque bone-strewn journey of its protagonists, while you as the reader are just along for the ride, taking in the landscape through the grand sweep of the prose, though whereas Blood Meridian – set in The American midwest of the 1800s – seems perversely, sanguinarily exultant, The Road, inhabiting a post-apocalyptic near-future seems a quieter, more meditative coda to the whooping barabarism of the former. And no, there are no plot twists, trapdoors or switcheroos; the ground the characters cover paced instead by the meter of McCarthy's sonorous, measured intonation.

Nonetheless, one of its major successes is managing to portray the withered otherworldliness of the Earth McCarthy reveals to us. In my last post, I spoke of some of my concerns regarding lazy use of CGI, and here the makers have opted instead for a distinctly traditionally 'real' approach, having filmed on location in Pennsylvania and tornado-torn New Orleans, and the cinematography is simply stunning. Granted, some digital massaging has been effected post-production to rob the screen of green and shift to a colour gamut of subdued blues and greys, but nonetheless, what we're presented with is an utterly believable, cold, sterile, ash-clogged vision of hell. Indeed, they were onto a winner releasing it in January - as the world of the Road is almost like a kind of ultra-January, January x 1000, too bleak to bear.

And the acting isn't too shabby, either. For it must be said that in terms of characters the film has a pretty minimal bunch of players to field, but the father-son relationship – which obstensibly is the book, feels surprisingly authentic. I was all primed to hate the kid, but his performance is pleasingly sans fromage, and Viggo Mortensen is great. Together, they make for some touching, and at time heart-wrenching scenes. The only time I grimaced slightly was at the very end, when the needle on the cheese-ometer bobbed briefly into the red with a close up of a FRIENDLY DOGGY, but otherwise the whole thing remains refreshingly un-Hollywood, and there's no reconvening in front of The Whitehouse with president Danny Glover, to toast the new dawn.

But yes, the book is probably better. One of the film's major shortcoming is that, unmediated through McCarthy's resonant language, the whole affair seemed more straightforward: less introspective, less lonely, less elegaic. So I guess the only question is – and the thing which most critics seemed to take issue with – why bother? given that at best, the film is only ever going to as authentic a translation of the novel as possible, and the kind of people who go and see it are, quite possibly, the people who read the book years back. I'm not sure this bothers me. The alternative would have been for the director to cook up some counterintuitive interpretation, and risk almost certain crucifixtion at the hands of reviewers. True, it's not a work of stand-alone genius, and it is inherently derivative of the novel, but its strengths are appropriately cinematic ones, and in this, it is a very valid success. And come to think of it, bar the second and third books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I thought were about the most boring things ever), I think I'd struggle to think of a film adaptation of a book, that actually outweighs its source material. Any ideas?

As a bonus, here is Cormac McCarthy taking the unexpected step of talking to Oprah Winfrey in 2007. He seems like a pretty genuine, calm, genial individual, rather than the wizened, squinting, Nietzshean hermit you might have imagined him to be, but I still think he should consider a beard. Anyway, there's the usual retarded Youtube babble in the comments section, but ignore that as Cormac actually has some interesting things to say.

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