Friday, May 24, 2013

'Apocalypse Now' on Sounds of Cinema

On Memorial Day weekend Sounds of Cinema will feature a condensed version of Elektra Records’ two-disc, 96 minute soundtrack to Apocalypse Now. The soundtrack album is unique in that it includes the music as well as the dialogue, sound effects, and narration featured in the motion picture, making the album play very much like a radio drama.

Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), an American soldier in Vietnam who is given a secret mission to assassinate an American colonel who has gone insane deep within the Southeast Asian jungle. On Willard’s journey he confronts his own doubts about the war, his allegiance to his country, and even his own sanity.

Apocalypse Now is an unconventional war film. There are none of the typical war film clich├ęs; no taking the hill, no waving flags, no Rambo-style heroics, no buddies in combat. Instead, Apocalypse Now is a journey from the order and relative civility of the military command through a progressively chaotic and uncouth battlefield, stripping away the social and technological signs of human advancement and returning the characters to a primal state of nature. By doing this, Apocalypse Now examines the roots of violence and the nature of warfare, making the film an exploration of the Thanatos drive.

Sounds of Cinema airs every Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What James Franco and 'The Great Gatsby' Can Teach Us About Adaptation

In an article posted at, James Franco has reviewed Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Although the review is being regarded with eye-rolls from some quarters of the internet (as is most everything by Franco, unfairly in my view), the piece has some interesting things to say about the film and the craft of adaptation. Among his observations, Franco writes:
When adapting Gatsby to the big screen, the main questions Baz Luhrmann faced were: What will work? And, like Romeo and Juliet before, How do I make this older material live in a new medium for a modern audience? And somehow Luhrmann managed to be loyal to both the original text and to his contemporary audience. The jazz music of the 20s was raw and dangerous, but if Luhrmann had used that music today, it would have been a museum piece—irrelevant to mainstream and high culture alike, because they would’ve already known what’s coming. . . . Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text—his critique, if you will. . . . Luhrmann needed to breathe life into the ephemera and aura of the 20s and that’s just what he succeeded at.
Franco refers to the use of contemporary hip-hop music in the film’s soundtrack. His assessment is right on, as hip-hop is the contemporary descendent of jazz and its appearance on the soundtrack gives the audience a point of reference in the party scenes.

Franco also gets at the purpose of adapting a previously published text. This is important to understanding and evaluating a film like The Great Gatsby. Filmmakers who adapt books or other narratives to film may have various intents. Many filmmakers working today attempt to recreate the original text on celluloid; such is the case with recent adaptations of popular fiction like Twilight and the Harry Potter series, which adhere slavishly to the source material (often to the movie’s detriment). Filmmakers of an earlier era were more prone to translate the source material, which often means modifying the text for running time and capitalizing on the strengths of cinema; Jaws and Psycho follow the basic structure of their novels but make drastic changes to characters and slim down the plots. Other filmmakers seek to comment upon the original text, as in Paul Verhoven’s Starship Troopers, while still others may use the original text to make broader connections, as in Frances Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness into Apocalypse Now.

None of these approaches are necessarily better than the others. Fans of a particular title will often talk about filmmakers “ruining” a book by making changes but that’s often hyperbole that misses the point. Critics and viewers have to evaluate an adaptation first in the same terms they would for any other film: how well it works as a piece of cinema. The fact that the Twilight series was apparently very faithful to the books does not make them good exercises in motion picture making. But adaptations also have to be understood in terms of what they have tried to do in relation to the original text. If the goal was to recreate the book and they failed to do this then that is fair criticism. But if the filmmakers attempt something else—and Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is an attempt to translate the text and make it palatable for contemporary cinemagoers —then the film has to be understood in those terms.

I’ll have a full review of The Great Gatsby on Sunday’s show.