Monday, July 23, 2007

a blockbuster of proust

Every summer I vanish into the depths of a movie watching binge, a hazy period full of dim memories of lineups, neon accents, the burble of arcade machines and a half-panicked stumble through dark theatres. Throughout this last week I’ve managed to temper the movies with my ongoing Proust-reading project, which has forced me involuntarily to compare everything else I read, see or hear with In Search of Lost Time. How does a seven-volume novel about life in France at the close of the nineteenth century compare to today’s hottest blockbusters? I have no idea. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing about it. Or has it?

Live Free or Die Hard: Bruce Willis stops sheriff-turned-cybergenius Seth Bullock from bringing America to its knees.

If you’ve watched HBO’s Deadwood, you can see the rage constantly being stoked in the furnace of Sheriff Seth Bullock’s eyes. It’s no surprise that he finally traveled in time to the twenty-first century and launched a computerized attack on the infrastructure of the USA. It’s the revenge of the wild past on the complacent village of the present. Fortunately, aging movie star Bruce Willis is wise to Bullock’s ways, teaming up with the I’m A Mac guy to outcool Bullock’s old-timey mannerisms. Against vast odds they triumph, although they lose the obscenity-spewing contest.

Resemblance to Proust Past: Tenacity. Marcel Proust spent the final years of his life in his cork-lined bedroom, patiently writing his 3,500 page opus that would eventually become the towering work of literary modernity. Not even The Great War could stop him. In LFoDH, Willis takes down a Harrier plane, at least one helicopter, scores of cars, several French bad guys, and one Asian kickmaster chick.


Transformers: In every adult’s worst nightmare, the toys that they grudgingly bought for their screaming spawn turn out to be gigantic sentient robots. They speechify, they fight, they die, they turn into eighteen wheelers.

There are always multiple considerations in the adaptation of a line of toys to a screen franchise, but the chief one must be How do we make not this not achingly stupid? For example, why would a bunch of alien robots from outer space look like Camaros and Mack trucks? In the highly plastic imaginative landscape of children, this poses no problem. But in a live-action movie, some of the plastic elements have to settle into a fixed shape. In the explanation, or explanations, provided – there seem to be at least three reasons given for the Transformer’s resemblance to Earth technology – Bay ends up exploring the affinity that we have for machines and the way in which we build anthropomorphic elements into the technology that we use every day. The Transformers movie is ridiculous – would you take aliens with names like Bumblebee and Jazz seriously? – but part of the reason for its success stems from the fact that we envision autonomous forms in our machines and long for their emergence.

Resemblance to Proust Past: Like Michael Bay, Marcel Proust understood the complex relationship between humans and their artifacts, and the process by which we imbue our art and architecture with human qualities, and how those qualities in turn influence and shape subsequent generations. As far as I know, Proust did not mention gigantic transforming robots in any of his finished manuscripts, but early drafts of Swann’s Way refer repeatedly to the narrator’s friendship with Optimus Prime.


Ratatouille: Ratatouille is a movie about a rat who wants to be a chef, who, through a series of unlikely circumstances, gets his shot. Ratatouille and Transformers pretty much prove that computer animation is folding the live-action film and the cartoon into one form. Transformers is a live-action film featuring characters and scenes executed almost entirely on a computer; Ratatouille is a cartoon with surfaces and textures so realistic that you sometimes forget, despite the presence of talking rats, that you’re watching animation. Similarly, Ratatouille’s preoccupations, about artistic production versus consumption and the function of criticism, shoot miles higher than the airy speeches about Freedom in Transformers.

Resemblance to Proust Past: Bodies of art tend to reduce to a small collection of images and lines, and usually not very representative or accurate ones. Our memory of Casablanca is chiefly anchored to an image of two men walking into the night on a Moroccan airfield and the mangled line “Play it again, Sam”. Leonardo da Vinci’s monster corpus is now a small dark painting of a woman with an ambiguous smile.

In the case of Proust, the entirety of ISOLT is remembered for a single scene at the close of the first chapter, in which the taste of a madeleine cookie dunked in tea brings on a spasm of involuntary memory, which is Proust’s term for a specific kind of memory that recollects and resurrects a place and time long gone, bringing it so forcefully into being that it slams aside the present, if only briefly. Behold:

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me… immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents… and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

It’s a longie but a goodie. You read the whole passage because we’re such good friends, you and I.

To discuss the madeleine moment in Ratatouille would spoil much of the fun that the viewer experiences in getting there, but suffice it to say that taste and memory intersect at the climax of the film. And besides, the movie's set in France. That's all Proustian and stuff.

2 comments:

Ozma said...

What I want to know is how those pieces of paper end up looking like houses. Huh? Do they have special paper in Japan?

mg said...

re: Ratatouille - i seem to remember rats holding a peculiarly interesting fascination for Monsieur Proust...