Sunday, September 18, 2005

Everything is in Technicolor

I'm sorry, my post titles are getting lame...

I saw another movie yesterday. Hey, it's my 10 days off between jobs, I am going to see a lot of them. It's what I enjoy doing - some people like to go to bars and drink, others watch sports, others go to the theater, others gamble - I love being in a movie theater with a fabulous tale unfolding larger than life in front of me. And I'm willing to take the chance that it isn't fabulous, that sometimes it's groan-inducing and the dialogue so predictable I can mouth it along with the actors ("wait, don't go... I... I... love you, too") because then the good ones are all the more special.

And the popcorn. I love popcorn.

"Everything is Illuminated" was one of my favorite books last year. I even went to a reading and met the author, who is in his early 20's and looks about 16. So Elijah Wood looking like - well, a cartoon boy - isn't that much of a stretch to play him. Oops, not him - the fictional "Jonathan Safron Foer" as created by the real Jonathan Safron Foer. (Although I will say that early on there is a scene where you see a young man with a leaf blower and I thought, why is "Jonathan Safron Foer" (the character, i.e., Elijah Wood) doing that? And then he walks away and Elijah Wood enters the frame. I forgot about it until I saw in the credits that the real Jonathan plays the leaf blower.)

I almost wrote "Elijah Wood in drag" in that last sentence. He kinda creeped me out in the beginning - thick glasses that magnify his normally big blue eyes until he looks like one of those scary Margaret Keane paintings, heavy white pancake makeup (Michael Jackson? Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands?), and a tiny painted pink mouth (a geisha girl?) In the book, you discover that Jonathan is an unusual person because you have the time to read about him, but since in the film it must be telegraphed visually, this is what we get. I'm not sure what I imagined he looked like when I read the book. Here's how we first see him, through the eyes of Alex, the Ukrainian narrator:
When we found each other, I was flabbergasted by his appearance. This is an American? I thought. And also, This is a Jew? He was severely short. He wore spectacles and had diminutive hairs which were not split [parted] anywhere, but rested on his head like a Shapka. [hat]... He did not appear like either the Americans I had witnessed in magazines, with yellow hairs and muscles, or the Jews from history books, with no hairs and prominent bones. He was wearing nor blue jeans nor the uniform. In truth, he did not look like anything special at all. I was underwhelmed at the maximum.

I don't know... less Tim Burton, more average Joe, I think.

But this passage gives you an idea of the Alex character - Jonathan's "translator" who worships hip-hop culture and hangs out in clubs while dreaming of moving to America to become an accountant. His English is carefully constructed - he avoids the simpler words for those which he believes make him sound more sophisticated. For example, when inquiring if Jonathan and his grandfather were close, he asks "were you proximal?" The film does a great job of bringing to life the humor that jumped off the written page, and the actor playing Alex is very good. The other main characters - Alex's grandfather and his dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (yes, that's not a typo, it's her name) are also delightful. The family runs "Heritage Tours" for rich Americans who want to explore their Jewish roots in Eastern Europe, and Jonathan is their client, come to Ukraine to find a woman in a 1942 picture his grandfather left him.

It's not a bad film, but when I read the book I was very much invested in the parallel past stories that alternate with the Alex chapters, and they are missing from the movie almost entirely. In the book you dip into the past, from 1791 to 1942, exploring family legends and traditions in between visits with Alex and his hilariously butchered English. By the end, when you get to the final scene, the story that Jonathan is so desperate to hear, you are already familiar with the village and its people and so what happens is that much more chilling. I read this on a train and remember feeling so emotional during that passage that I thought I wouldn't be able to finish reading it. It was one of the most powerful chapters I'd read (since a similar moment in "Beloved.")

The film drops most of the past storyline, leaving only the last and most significant flashback. And I think it suffers because of it. Maybe for other moviegoers, who haven't read the book, it's enough - but for me it was too quick and too sudden. We don't spend enough time in the past to understand how the past "illuminates everything."

I would still recommend seeing the movie - but also reading the book for a truly incredible experience.


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