Sunday, July 01, 2007

When the Creator Comes to Town

. . . Reviewing impressions of a film just viewed . . .

Years ago, when I first read Breakfast of Champions, it made quite an impression on me, mostly because of Vonnegut's intensely playful visual use of language ... and as such, I had a hard time conceptualizing how it could ever be translated successfully to film. Above all, BOC was a book about books, the act of creation, and characters interacting in surreal and far from coincidental ways. It's one big comic play of the juxtaposition of universes with a constantly amusing, yet deadly serious core composed of bleak existential questions.

When we enter the world of BOC, Dwayne Hoover (Bruce Willis) is going through an existential crisis, right in the midst of his superficially bright, gaudy, loud and clearly plasticine universe in Midland City, where he is the famed owner (and TV commercial 'star') of the Exit 11 Motor Village car dealership. When we first meet him he's on the verge of ending it all, but is frustrated by the intrusion of a reality from which he's fast becoming more detached by the minute. So, in a sense, I suppose you could term this film an 'existential comedy' (though vastly different from the self-proclaimed I Heart Huckabees from a few years back).

Dwayne's having an increasingly frequent series of bad days ... and it's easy to see why, when you reflect upon the foundation of his self-image as personified by the leering images of his face plastered everywhere in sight ... he's the face of consumption incarnate (after all he sells cars), and it has finally begun to consume him in earnest. The sub-division he's building is smack in the middle of a toxic waste dump that is now attracting attention from government environmental agents, his attention starved wife Celia (Barbara Hershey) has been reduced to a booze swilling, pill popping near-comatose shell of a woman, his son (Lukas Haas) lives in a fallout shelter and aspires to be a Liberace style lounge singer named Bunny, his sales manager Ray Lasabre (Nick Nolte) conceals a dark sexual secret, his mistress Francine Pefko (Glenne Headly) really only seems to aspire to building a KFC store right across from the local state prison, and one of the prison's recent releases, Wayne Hoobler (Omar Epps), aspires to nothing more than to be with and work for Dwayne Hoover, merely because he grew up with his image on TV and in prison and revels in the similarities of their names.

And then there's Kilgore Trout (played masterfully by Albert Finney). For those of you who are familiar with Vonnegut's work, you'll know who he is ... the failed science fiction writer whose philosophical musings only saw the light of day published in obscure pornographic magazines with lurid covers that revealed nothing of his true existential genius. He's the ultimate creator, and he's coming to Midland City for a collision with several of the characters he himself has created. In short, Vonnegut plays an absurd, yet delicate intertextual game about the act of writing, contemplation, self-awareness and sadly ironic social commentary that still is potent to this day.

Wayne Hoobler is dazzled by bright colourful lights and flashy surfaces and has an odd tic of proclaiming 'Fairyland!' at times ... Celia unconsciously recites commercial slogans in her drug addled attempts at reconnecting with Dwayne ... Bunny lives to get himself all dolled up to perform in a sleazy motel cocktail lounge under garish lights ... while Ray fears constantly that Dwayne will discover his hidden wardrobe yearnings. These characters all focus their lives on the surfaces. And their surfaces all revolve around Dwayne Hoover, and therein lies the crux of the narrative ... how their very existence depends upon Dwayne supporting their surface existences ... and when he falls down on the job, the whole universe starts to go a bit, well, awry. All the while, Kilgore Trout treks his way to Midland City to appear at an arts festival funded by his greatest fan, the enigmatic Elliot Rosewater, an appearance that will alter many of his own creations' existences forever.

And Dwayne is having a real hard time dealing with these surfaces lately, due to the intermittent messages he's getting at inopportune times from Kilgore Trout ... and he's reached the cracking point where he must know the answer from this mysterious unknown sensei to give himself meaning, though when he finally gets it, he has an epiphany so simple, indeed banal, it astounds even himself as well as his creator, Kilgore Trout. And it all comes to the fore in the cocktail lounge as his son Bunny performs when Kilgore Trout has finally arrived in Midland City ... with arguably absurd and disastrous results. Creator meets his creation. Teaches and learns from his creation, thus finding his own reason for and method of escaping the universe he has himself created ... that's what Kilgore Trout ultimately learns from his own work. Vonnegut's own peculiar brand of intertextuality gone wild thus climaxes in an oddly haunting and visually beautiful dénouement.

This is definitely extremely heady stuff. And though I've long been a fan of Alan Rudolph's work, I do have to say that admirable as this adaptation is, he was working against nearly impossible odds to bring Vonnegut's vision to the screen. That's not to say this is by any means a failed effort (despite what some might say on IMDB), just that he was venturing into very tricky territory, and to my mind, he did a remarkable job. In his younger years, Rudolph used to work with Robert Altman, (one of my favorite directors of all time despite some of his stinkier films), and his influence is clearly evident in Rudolph's mastery of the ensemble cast. With a group as eclectic as we see in this film, Rudolph uses even the cameos masterfully to imbue a deeply comic and ironic tone to the film ... with the likes as diverse as Buck Henry to even a very young Owen Wilson (with Vonnegut himself making a brief appearance), he does manage to pull it all off with significant aplomb in my humble estimation.

No, it's not the book as you remember it, even if certain striking imagery remains (my favorite is Dwayne sinking into the pavement of the parking lot, which I thought was brilliantly done), it is a translation of the book through Rudolph's eyes, which thus necessitates the intervention of one creator in guise of another. And isn't that what this 'story' is all about? Kilgore Trout, despite his squalid existence, has brought into being a whole universe he alone directs, despite his best efforts to the contrary ... over which the creator himself has no --or very little-- control.

Sum toto
, we're not the masters of our own universes, no matter what we may believe. I think that's Vonnegut's message, and Rudolph's too ... we may not understand the invisible strings that send us careening from one situation to the next, but we are compelled to do it anyway. And when we can come to this basic realization, we can only take comfort in that knowledge and make the best of it. So if you think that Rudolph 'copped out' with a schmaltzy 'happy ending,' think again. Go back and contemplate the film's surfaces and you'll see what he's been telling you all along ... it's all about how we present ourselves to the world in this artificial construct ... warts and all, we're just playing some absurd game devised by someone else, and if you try to break away from it, you'll meet resistance. Ultimately, I guess it's sort of a Zen message he delivers ... life is to live, and that's all you can do until you die. And then it's over.

This film obviously was a commercial failure at the time (no surprise to Rudolph fans who are used to this kind of reception), though for the right audience, it has a lot to offer. Its playful and clever use of television (especially the innumerable commercials), the intertextual references to other Vonnegut novels makes it worthy of at least one viewing (though it does become richer on successive viewings), so long as you're willing to give it a wide berth. Enter this world openly and accept its rules and you'll do just fine, and maybe learn something in the process.

And if you're really lucky, you too, like Kilgore Trout, just may slip through a "leak" and find yourself in a better place.

Bless you Kurt Vonnegut. I'm a more enriched and better person for having read your work. You are missed, but so it goes ....


Family Man said...

Hiya IVG.

I haven't read that book in decades actually. I think I'll go by the library and check it out again.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

If you happen to see the DVD of the film there you should check it out as well ... would be worth your time, unless my "review" scared you off from it!

FARfetched said...

I'll have to read the book too. Stephen King has explored some of this "creation meets creator" territory as well, both in a short story (Umney's Last Case and novels (Dark Tower). I personally find it fascinating, although it drives other people up a tree.

I certainly can relate to having very little control over one's own creation… sometimes, you just have to let the story come out the way it wants to.