Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Travesties of Pittsburgh

MoPMichael Chabon is the M. Night Shyamalan of American literary fiction. You read or see one, you've read or seen them all. While viewers of a Shyamalan film expect some "twist" that will (attempt to) make them reconsider the entire film, Chabon's readers can count on one character wrestling with and having an epiphany about his non-normative sexuality. And a lot of crying.

Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, received tremendous acclaim. Of the novel, poet Carolyn Forche wrote, "Simply the best novel I've read in years....It will takes its place beside On the Road and Catcher in the Rye," while in its reviews of the Playboy magazine repeatedly compared Chabon to F.Scott Fitzgerald and the novel to Gatsby.1

chabon_l He was heralded by the gay community for the book, but what made this novel so groundbreaking became the hook upon which he hung Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, so one wonders if Chabon was just savvy, trying to corner a market, with Mysteries.

This year will see the release of the film adaptation of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and while the novel is a great first novel, the film-makers have decided to basically rewrite the whole thing, excising what is most interesting about the novel. Bravo.

suvari Throughout the novel, the protagonist Art Bechstein is pulled between Phlox Lombardi (Mena Suvari), a kind-of-femme-fatale, and Arthur LeComte, a gay man whom he meets in the library. Another storyline follows the character of Cleveland Arning (Peter Sarsgaard2), a hero who is crashing, but the emotional freight of the work is Bechstein's attempt to understand his sexuality.

sarsgaard The film makers have decided, apparently, that the character of Arthur LeComte was superfluous, that he somehow got in the way of the real story, when in the novel LeComte pulls the strings on almost every event that takes place. A LeComte-less film can only mean that the screenplay takes tremendous liberties with everything else: LeComte introduces Bechstein to Phlox, LeComte introduces Bechstein to Jane Bellweather (Sienna Miller), LeComte has been a lifelong friend of Cleveland. These people would never know one another without LeComte.

A quick look at tells you all you need to know: the introductory scene is set at a punk show (not in the novel), which one assumes will draw Bechstein, Phlox, Jane, and Cleveland together. When and where this revision will end is anyone's guess.

One wonders how well Chabon has taken to this treatment of his work. To loosely paraphrase Hemingway, when a novel is adapted into a film, the novelist drives past the studio, throws the novel over the wall, catches the sack of money thrown back, and then drives off. Although maybe Chabon's just happy to see one of his stories play out with what has become his stock gimmick.

1 Playboy is pretty close to truth, in that Chabon lifts so much directly from Gatsby. See Gatsby's Jordan Baker, the female professional golfer that captures Nick's attention, and Mysteries' Jane Bellweather, who Art first sees driving golf balls.

2Spellcheck wanted to correct "Sarsgaard" to "rearguard."

[Note: Because every website is currently running an article about Sienna Miller, this film came to mind. When I checked and the official website to see the full cast, I saw the absence of Arthur ~ Ed.]

Thursday, July 17, 2008

La Lucha Continua, Señor Beck

ratm_che Lately, conservative television commentators have increasingly focused attention on tee-shirts depicting the image of Che Guevara. While T's of El Che were popular throughout the 90's (See: Zach de la Rocha), these T's and their wearers have received venomous attention in the post-9/11 world, a world in which the meme seems to have become the most important materiél in a war against radical Islamic extremism née radical extremism née terror [Maybe it always has been, but now even the U.S. government is acknowledging it. ~ Ed.].

glennbeckIn his commentary, "T-shirt depicts 'brutal and pathetic' legacy,"  enlightened pundit Glenn Beck again takes up the issue, citing the use of a Che-based tee as costume in a Columbian-army hostage rescue operation as proof positive that "When you are wearing a Che T-shirt, you're wearing the same shirt that makes terrorists believe you're just one of the gang." [I have the same luck every time I wear my Hines Ward jersey to Heinz Field. Want to see my Super Bowl ring? ~ Ed.] Now, Mr. Beck's position is untenable in several ways.

First, Mr. Beck assumes that at some point one of the FARC members looked at the t's-shirt, indexed it against known images that signify rebel or nationalist, and decided to accept the false identity of the rescuer based solely upon the tee. I offer this: If the forces of terra' are that trusting and simple minded, why did it take five years to rescue those hostages? Why has W not held a celebratory Roast-Bin-Laden-On-A-Spit-In-The-Rose-Garden media event? Not only is it likely erroneous to suppose that the Che tee tipped the scales for a successful op, but it is also dangerous—if Americans believe the "bad guys" can be duped with a t's-shirt, will those Americans take those rebels seriously?

Second, Mr. Beck only espouses the capitalist, post-industrial, hegemonic narrative of Guevara. As an opponent of colonialism who used violent means in an attempt to liberate countries from settler colons who would not go quietly, peacefully, or at all, Guevara deserves to be seen as a more complex figure. Would it be fair, I might ask Mr. Beck, if we were to simply our description of the current Commander-in-Chief as a war-mongering, fact-fabricating, nation-deceiving, imperialist who engineered the overthrow of a sovereign country in order to revenge his biological father and follow the message of his spiritual father? I submit that it would not [Totally avoids his anti-science, pro-oil positions. ~ Ed.], and I assume Mr. Beck would agree.

However, if Mr. Beck wishes to pigeon-hole Che, I have a few suggestions of other tee shirts featuring colonized people who used violent, unconventional means to secure their own liberty and freedom:

SamAdams   greenback

Of course I am being hyperbolic, and I am not seriously equating George Washington with Che Guevara, but I am suggesting that each figure, each person who walks this earth, cannot be reduced to one or two adjectives, no matter how politically expedient it might be. Moreover, by simplifying Che, painting him as a "murderer," glosses over the very real social injustices Che witnessed and was committed to correcting.

But, for most speakers who rage against the Che tee, that is probably the point.

BTW: Who knew they made patriotic Cosby sweaters?