Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

This movie review starts with the discovery of a dusty book in my parents' basement.

On a recent trip to idyllic Central New Jersey, I was rummaging through the various piles of crap that is all that remains of my college experience, and stumbled across a used copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe I'd purchased at the Syracuse University bookstore. I cannot tell you what class it was for because I don't remember. This, I'm sure, is due in large part to the fact that though I bought the book for a class, I never actually proceeded to read it. Oops. For some reason this omission wracked me with great pangs of guilt, so I tucked the book into my bag and brought it back to the Big Apple.

Once I cracked it, I found it to be a wonderful novel, funny and true. That led to a second old book, one I bought at a used bookstore and read immediately. That one was called The Devil's Candy by Julie Salamon, and it detailed the process by which Wolfe's beloved book became Brian De Palma's befuddled cinematic adaptation. Salamon's book doesn't shy away from the poor and very often illogical decisions that De Palma and the executives at Warner Brothers made during the process of turning Bonfire into a veritable cinematic conflagration, one that nearly torched many of the careers involved with it. But she also paints many of the men and women involved, particularly De Palma and his assistant director, Eric Schwab, with a kind of gritty integrity. They may have made some poor decisions, but they made them with the best of intentions. This fine reading experience made me even more curious to see the Bonfire film, which I had also avoided during my tour through the American educational system (at least I can say it was never a class assignment I skipped out on). Surely, I felt, there would some redeeming things about the movie. I sort of hoped and even believed I would actually like it, and be the only person who could defend it, which is always a fun position to be in.

But for the most part, De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities is the mess I'd always been led to believe it was, and very much the product of the confrontational creative process that birthed it. As a general rule, it's a waste of time to bemoan the ways in which a movie is unlike its source because, as Wolfe points out in Salamon's book, the book is the book and the movie is the movie and both should be judged on their own merits. It's somewhat valid in this case because the changes De Palma and Warners made to Bonfire all undermine things that Wolfe put into the original material, which thus weakens its overall impact.

Take, for instance, the film version's most infamous change: removing Alan Arkin from the role of Judge Kovitsky and replacing him with Morgan Freeman. The Kovitsky role serves a few purposes in the narrative; he presides over Sherman McCoy's trial and is a rare voice of integrity and nobility amongst the otherwise venal cast (admittedly, that voice is rather vulgar). Kovitsky is also Jewish, which serves to further emphasize the fact that the Bronx Courthouse where much of the action takes place is ruled entirely by whites, even though the men and women whose cases are being heard there are almost entirely black or Latino. Freeman was hired as a preemptive method to undercut potential controversy about the film's sensitive racial material but really all it does onscreen is neuter a good deal of Wolfe's acidity, something the movie does repeatedly to its own detriment.

Offscreen, Freeman's casting had other effects. The producers had originally turned down Walter Matthau, an inspired choice, for the role because he asked for too much money; it was at that point that they settled on the much cheaper Alan Arkin. When they hired Freeman, they had to pay him a good deal more than Arkin — while still also paying the original actor's salary as well — and his busy schedule at the time meant they could not shoot the film's crucial courtroom scenes in Los Angeles as originally intended. Finding a courtroom near New York City proved exceedingly expensive and drove a acrimonious wedge between De Palma and his bosses at Warner Brothers, who grew angrier with their director with every cost overrun.

De Palma's Bonfire isn't so much an adaptation of Wolfe's novel as it is the Cliff's Notes version of it. My copy of the novel ran well over 600 pages; and only the bare bones of it actually fits into the two hour movie (more potentially could have, if executives didn't demand that their expensive movie be made more accessible by keeping the running time down before 130 minutes). Even when De Palma and screenwriter Michael Cristopher play things faithfully to the novel they really don't capture the true flavor of the book. One of my very favorite scenes from Wolfe's Bonfire is the one in which the police, who are routinely checking every black Mercedes in New York State, come to question Sherman McCoy. McCoy, knowing he is involved in the hit and run accident they are investigating, tries to play it cool but completely tips off his role. Narratively, Wolfe's and De Palma's version are almost identical, right down to the way one of the detectives casually sits on McCoy's desk as he reads him his Miranda rights. But Wolfe's version is longer and richer, because it exists inside McCoy's head and lets us see his tortured thought process in all its squirmy glory.

This gets at a larger flaw in the cinematic Bonfire. Wolfe's narration is omniscient, and it permits us entry into many of the characters' mental states. The only narrator of De Palma's film is Bruce Willis, who plays alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow (in yet another departure from the source, Fallow is no longer a snobby Brit). The film opens with a sloshed Fallow arriving at a press conference celebrating the release of his book all about McCoy's case; De Palma presents the scene in one long uninterrupted take. Technically, the shot is miraculous — according to The Devil's Candy it was so difficult, in fact, that De Palma appears on screen, in the role of a security guard on a walkie-talkie not out of his desire for a cameo but because there was simply otherwise no way that the director could stay with the Steadicam and communicate the cues to the rest of the crew — but it doesn't tell us anything about Fallow that a similar series of edited shots might have conveyed. De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond employ a lot of flashy camera work but very little of it has any textual motivation. In a movie like Blow Out, which is about the very nature of moviemaking, severe angles or lengthy tracking shots all serve a purpose. Not here.

Perhaps even more importantly, Fallow narrates the movie, providing us with glimpses of scenes he couldn't possibly know about and never witnessed. I guess we're supposed to assume that, at some point he sat down with McCoy and learned about all these private moments but no such scene appears in the film and Fallow event makes a point of noting that McCoy disappeared after his trial and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Further, Fallow's insight as a narrator is about as deep as you'd expect to come from a disinterested, boozy bumbler. This sort of lack of insight, and the overall removal of Wolfe's carefully crafted ambiguity, plague Hollywood's version of this tale. Wolfe never tells us the motivation of the black teens who approach Sherman's car, perhaps as a way to let the reader's own racial biases influence his reading of the encounter; De Palma takes a similar approach through most of the scene, but closes it with several shots and lines that make the kids' criminal intent quite clear. The book's third main character after McCoy and Fallow is Larry Kramer, a talented young assistant district attorney obsessed with his muscular physique and hitting on hot women in his juries. Kramer's tour through the heavily political Bronx judicial system the racial and ethnic politics of the NYPD are another flavorful element of Wolfe's metropolitan stew. The movie Kramer (Saul Rubinek), who's first name is Jed for some reason, is reduced to a bumbling neophyte who gleefully and unthinkingly carries out the marching orders of his boss, D.A. Abe Weiss.

Still, I enjoyed the process of reading the novel, reading about its adaptation, and then viewing the finished version, comparing how I'd imagined the book looking to how Salamon described De Palma's take, to finally watching it myself. Rarely, is one given the opportunity to see the creative process from such a wide-ranging perspective. Even if the end result was rather disappointing, the journey was a great one to make and I'm quite glad I stumbled on that old book I bought and never read.

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