Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 05, 2016 7:33 pm 
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Mysteries of implosion

James Schamus is a veteran producer and writer, who has particularly worked with Ang Lee, producing many of Lee's films and doing screen adaptations of The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Hulk (2003). Indignation, which he adapted from Philip Roth's novel, is his debut as a feature film director. It's a solid, serious job, successfully evoking the repressive conventionality of the Fifties that's ultimately too much to bear for Roth's young protagonist, Marcus Messner, the brilliant son of a kosher butcher in Newark who winds up at a straitlaced, predominantly Christian college in Ohio that is neither worthy of him nor appropriate.

For his directorial debut Schamus has chosen straightforward material, hasn't he? Maybe not. Perhaps Roth's novel, seemingly clear and explicit like so much of Roth's writing, is ambiguous, a real puzzler. And it's not a sure thing that Schamus has given it its due. Arguably something wilder and freer was called for rather than this dutiful but hence inevitably slightly underwhelming job.

The story is one of a talented Jewish boy ground up in the giant cogwheels of midcentury convention at its most numbingly conventional as embodied in a bland Midwestern college. It's 1951, second year of the Korean War. To begin with Marcus, who we see early on working for his father (Danny Burstein) in the kosher butcher shop, is driven crazy by has dad's growing paranoia and worry about the mores of the young people today, as well as the dangers of the Korean war, which has indeed just taken away several of Marcus' young contemporaries whose obsequies they attend. To escape, the youth goes off to Winesburg College, in Ohio. Here everybody is out to get him, starting with his two Jewish roommates (arbitrarily assigned, though he listed no religious affiliation), and members of the only Jewish fraternity on campus, who try to recruit him as a member to up their academic level.

To social pressure is added sexual confusion when Marcus falls in love with, but is also deeply troubled by, the first woman who has sex with him. She is disturbed fellow student Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gordon), a blonde shiksa temptress who in addition to a mere goodnight kiss gives him a blow job on their first and only date, thus hopelessly confusing and fascinating him. Later she reveals a scar - she protests she was not hiding it on the date - the telltale sign of a suicide attempt that explains her transfer from Mount Holyoke, or partly does.

In the movie's straightforward narrative, Marcus is buffeted from many angles, but most powerfully browbeaten by the college administration. The centerpiece of James Schamus' version is an intense discussion between Marcus and the Dean of Students, Mr. Caudwell (Tracy Letts) in the Dean's office. Dean Caudwell seems bent on tormenting the young man, questioning his religion, his sexual behavior, his choice of where to live, and his attendance at the required chapel. Letts (who looks like John Lithgow without the twinkle) and Lerman (the brilliant actor who was so fine in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and is subtle and solid here) are both formidable actors. There's a controlled fury about this encounter that makes it fascinating to watch. It's a pity the romantic-sexual scenes between Marcus and Olivia don't generate the same intensity. Whether it's the camerawork or the actress (I think the former), Sarah Gordon hasn't the tempting sex appeal she ought.

Marcus feels the overpowering pressures of conformity, when his proud admiration for Bertrand Russell's defense of atheism "Why I Am Not a Christian" and Russell himself are mocked and rejected by Dean Caudwell. And this pressure becomes too much to bear, both in the office confrontation - where Marcus vomits and is rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy - and thereafter, when his life as a student evaporates and the haunting Olivia disappears. In a hasty finale Marcus, who's narrating from the afterlife (a contrivance that gets lost in the film), winds up expelled from the college and (perhaps) dying in a foxhole in the Korean War. But after 110 minutes, the film version finishes off the novel's ambiguities rather hastily, skipping the fine details of how poor Marcus gets kicked out of Winesberg College and sent off to war and the ambiguities of where his narration's coming from.

But is that long debate the true center of Philip Roth's novel? And if not, what is the novel about that's missing here? I don't frankly know what it is - the pressures of neurotic, over-conventional Jewish parents; sexual temptation too risky and dangerous for an inexperienced boy in Fifties Midwestern surroundings; social pressures that get in the way of his scholarly ambitions. (The classroom scenes are puzzling, seemingly meaningless chats about history.) Or is it the oppressive conformity represented by compulsory chapel (Marcus is caught out hiring a proxy student to sign in for him) and the mean Dean's politely menacing disapproval of everything he has done, all he stands for? Or is Roth's primary aim to tease us with an unreliable narrator?

Obviously it's all of these things: Roth means to show us a gathering web of pressures crushing Marcus' identity in an absolutely paroxysmal accumulation. But the film can't go into enough specific detail, and Schamus (as yet anyway) lacks the visual or directorial flair to make the intensity sufficient. In the succinct, spare novel, Roth provides just enough. But Schamus must leave things out, and when you subtract from enough you have less than you need - though the elaborate recreation of Fifties costumes and settings helps mask that, as do the vivid performances.

Maybe I am being too hard. Schamus carries off the film with a good deal of polish. What he has produced, in its shiny oppressiveness, may be less unsatisfying than most other Philip Roth film adaptations. But something more than a mid-rank Masterpiece Theater effort is called for. Hope for a better choice next time: the fact is, Philip Roth film adaptations have always been pretty hit or miss. Recent surveys of these uneven successes have appeared, by Akiva Gottleib in the Los Angeles Times, Lee Robson in The New Yorker, and Adam Chandler in The Wire/The Atlantic, to name a few. Robson's suggestion that homages like Alex Ross Perry's mordantly witty Listen Up Philip (2014) are more promising than straight adaptations of Roth's impossibly complex and shifty narratives is a good one. The chief reason for seeing Indignation is to enjoy Logan Lerman's performance. The frustrated, imploding role of Marcus is a subtle showcase for his talents.

Indignation, 110 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2016, showing at nine other international festivals including Berlin, Seattle, San Francisco, and Jerusalem. US theatrical release 5 Aug. 2016.

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