Friday, June 01, 2007

"CARRIED AWAY" aka "FARMER" by Jim Harrison

The synergy between Russ Chatham's painting and Jim Harrison's writing is deeply moving.

The book entitled “Farmer” by Jim Harrison was translated into the film called “Carried Away.” I haven’t wanted to write about the film without rereading the book, so that's what I did last night. As I suspected, the translation is overlapping but not the same -- so to speak -- "creature." A movie nearly always has to drop out characters, simplify what might call the “narrative through-line,” and translate the words into images according to a very different sensibility than wrote the words. Most often, that changes the meaning.

In the case of this movie, the story had been optioned by a big-shot director, but then the option expired. Harrison was on the scene and discovered that the Brazilian director Bruno Barreto loved the book -- so, saying he felt like a foreigner much of the time in America -- he gave the rights to Bruno, whose wife (Amy Irving) was very much in favor of it, enough to be both producer and actor in the film. Other actors, notably Dennis Hopper, also fell very much in love with the project, which is about a couple of rural school teachers, long-time sweethearts, stuck in the status quo.

The result depends upon who you are. That mythical fourteen-year-old Aussie boy who posts to will never get past the full frontal nudity of the main characters. Those of us who know the book will miss the embeddedness in nature, the web of life in the wilderness that backs onto the farm. (As the reviewer of my bio of Bob Scriver put it, “all those tedious hunting stories.”) But for those of us who take to our hearts grown-up love stories like “Lovin’ Molly” (McMurtry) or “Where Rivers Run North” in which Rip Torn and Tantoo Cardinal were the couple, this is a gem. I watched it once without knowing what would happen, then again with the comments of Bruno and Amy Irving running alongside, and I’ll watch it another time now that I’ve read the book and thought about it a bit more.

Bruno is dissed in some reviews, described as a “flash in the pan,” and I think that his yearning to make a “great” movie probably crippled him a bit. He wants the farm (which is in Michigan in the book and was filmed in Texas) to be a Pennsylvania Wyeth painting, which means he’s not picking up some of the regionalism. The need to make the film come to a big climax tempted he and the screenwriter into a “flaming horse” sequence that’s painful and out of all proportion to the rest of the script. (In the book it's a graduation trip to Chicago in which the Amy Irving character's son has his first welcome and doctor-endorsed homosexual tryst. Take that, you little imaginary Aussie!) The barn fire is not in the book, but it makes the saucy little seductress definitively bad which will help Playboy fans break their attachment to the type. The actress looks very much like my step-daughter and her daughters -- blonde, beautifully built, a cultural ideal -- but this movie character is a narcissistic sociopath, twisted by need and too much experience too early. The actress conveys that well, but in the movie her grotesque alcoholic mother is produced to make the point. The father, the “Major” played by Gary Busey, though in the movie he is put into a melodramatic “fake-out” (that happens with relatives in the book), seems too sane to have such a nutty daughter.

One of the losses in the movie is the Hopper character’s female twin, who DID go to the city, take lovers, marry an actor, get sophisticated and philosophical -- and constantly stay in warm relationship with the Amy Irving character. (Harrison had a twin sister who died in childhood.) In modern life we tend to see lovers as excluding everyone else, esp. other lovers. This is a construct, in my opinion, not a reality. We exalt love-making so high that it distorts ordinary life. Bruno is good at undercutting a little of that with humor and the natural nakedness the actors achieve.

Much has been made of the fact that Dennis Hopper plays the “Aiden Quinn part” (sensitive but passive) and Gary Busey plays the “Dennis Hopper part” (menacing) but I think that in reflecting about the success of movies, we neglect to discuss how much actors actually love working together in such a story. I mean, forget the vision of the director -- these grownup and highly skilled people knew what they were doing. It would have been hard to botch. Julie Harris and Hal Holbrook are pros and it is stupid to criticize them on grounds that they were playing to their own types. They fulfilled the script brilliantly. This movie is as centered on the script as a play should be.

Probably Amy Irving was playing against type more than anyone else and Hopper could not have been so effective if she had not been so thoroughly committed to her part. In fact, listening to her do the voice-over with Bruno, I began to feel that the real vision was hers and though Bruno was competent, he couldn’t have approached the beauty and depth of this film without her. (The movie was made in 1996. They divorced in 2005. She was previously married to Speilberg.)

What might be hard for young urban viewers to grasp is the interdependence (so sorry it’s become a cliche) of rural communities. By the time a person graduates from high school, he or she knows just about everything about everyone’s past for the last fifty years, has had some kind of intense relationship with lots of people, and (until the invention of cars and television) has walked just about every foot of local land. I’m not sure these actors had that kind of life, but the main ones surely understood how that factors into love and forgiveness.

Back to the issue of the book, here's the kind of tiny poetic detail Harrison can slip into a moment. "Three poplar leaves torn off in the storm were pasted against the windshield; then the one whose edge was curled peeled and flew away leaving its imprint for a moment before the rain washed it away." It's "the one whose edge was curled..." that makes the difference. Things are causally connected.

Here's his shot at the worshippers of macho chest-beating writers. Joseph "liked Sherwood Anderson least because he wrote only about what everyone knows, but the professor insisted that that was precisely why he was so good, a point of view that flew over Joseph's head like a migrating teal." You need to know both Sherwood Anderson and teal, a whistling-fast little duck, to get that one.

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