Knitting the middlebrow

Movies opening this week: Indignation, Suicide Squad, The Innocents, and more

Never mind the brow, how about Richard Brody’s outstanding beard?
  • Never mind the brow, how about Richard Brody’s outstanding beard?


Indignation 4.0

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How do I know that I am, at heart, a middlebrow critic? Well, partly because I have yet to join my fellow critic Scott in his celebration of the Jackass franchise. But also because I really liked James Schamus’s cinematic adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation, a film that New Yorker film critic Richard Brody referred to as “cramped and simplistic” in comparison to the “terrifying and visionary” book.

Why was the delightfully highbrow Brody (the title for his piece on the recent Ghostbusters remake calls that film “bland, mechanical, and totally worth seeing) displeased? He makes a detailed case, but the thesis is right there at the end:

  • Roth seems to have written his novel with a sense of infinite possibility and infinite curiosity. His telling of the story is itself the discovery of a singular way to tell it. Schamus has filmed the story with a sense of constraint. The writer-director didn’t just reduce and simplify the novel in order to squeeze it into movie form; he sterilized it. Everything that makes the novel live has been killed to make it into a movie, as if the cinema were some lesser medium that would be broken by the attempt to confine a living thing, a thing as spirited and active as the novel “Indignation.” Of course, the breaking of familiar forms in the interest of artistic freedom — the inward, spiritual type of freedom that becomes political when the work of art instills it in readers, viewers, or listeners — is exactly the point. It’s what Roth does, it’s what Beethoven did — and it’s what Schamus, making an utterly familiar and easy film, doesn’t do.

Short version: Roth was in full Roth mode when he wrote Indignation, and Schamus made an ordinary story out of it. (Do go and read the long version, though; it’s very well done.) The thing is, Schamus knows this. When we chatted, he freely discussed how he thought the characters could survive without Roth’s tremendous voice and how the story could be made “fable-like.” Does it become simpler, more conventional, more accessible in the process? It sure sounds like it. Is that a terrible thing? I suspect it depends on the placement of your brow.


Suicide Squad

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Who knows? Maybe Brody’s remarkable aesthetic perspective (and I mean that sincerely) will allow him to discover merits in the superhero (supervillain?) movie Suicide Squad that escaped me utterly. From the reports on the on-set goings on (which I read about only after writing my review), it certainly sounds like some far-out art was getting made, but that’s not what I saw on screen.

Anyway, Indignation deals heavily is sex and religion and sanity, and so does The Innocents. Four stars and three stars from me, respectively. Make of that what you will.

Scott has a couple of docs up this week: the NFL-star-gets-ALS doc Gleason and the Disney-therapy doc Life, Animated. He tosses two stars to both, but even so you can catch a distinct whiff of his disappointment with each film. The genius walks a lonely road. At least, that’s what I hear.

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I'm trying to figure out whether you liked the movie "Indignation"or not. I was one of about eight people in the hall at the Arclight La Jolla Construction Zone last night -- and I couldn't tell if they liked it either. The hero student's lively and unlikely exchange with the college dean was wonderful -- and in general the film captured the sexually repressed '50's, boys' fears of being drafted into the Korean conflict, as well as the sense of limitless possibility that came from leaving home and going away to a strong academic college. But the movie was also flat and stylized and I will have to read the Philip Roth story to understand the war scenes and the final image of the aged woman in a nursing home. No actor was recognizable to me except for the dean played by Tracy Letts.

Brave man: that's a helluva construction zone. I did like it, more than most, I think. I think "the limits of intelligence" is a pretty big theme: Messner's friend tells him he's too smart to wind up killed in the war, but we know from the outset that that's not true. Messner counts on his intelligence to save him; it's why he feels comfortable rejecting the community offered by the Jewish frat, and why he thinks he can win against the Dean. Then he sees that leg, and fate kicks into gear, because from then on out, it's a matter of character. I guess SPOILER ALERT: the woman in the nursing home is looking at that wallpaper pattern of roses in a vase for a reason.

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