Monday, January 28, 2013

Two Lovers and White Nights: Perception as Pain

This is a paper that I wrote in 2010 for a Literature and Film class from when I was doing my undergrad at the University of Ottawa. The assignment was to compare a story to its film adaptation. I’m publishing it now to show where my writing has come from as well to accompany another post I’m planning to do on James Gray. – D.D.
James Gray adapted Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights (1848) in 2009 as the feature length film Two Lovers.  The original short story spans a few days and progresses through conversations and the thoughts of a first person narrator and it has a novelistic edge that conveys the psychology of the nameless protagonist. The adaptation Two Lovers through the use of narrative, acting, and cinematography conveys the same feelings of perception-as-pain and of yearning and loneliness as the book but transplants them in a contemporary New York City setting instead of Saint Petersburg and the story takes place over an unmentioned period of time as it illustrates a society and world larger than the depictions in the story. Two Lovers fulfills the act of a successful adaptation through the reinterpretation of the classic story and making it relevant for a contemporary audience.
The American film director James Gray’s filmography includes We Own The Night (2007), The Yards (2000) and Little Odessa (1994) and his films share many of the same themes, settings (e.g., New York City) and repertoire of actors. Gray’s protagonists are usually lone male adults who are confronted by a corrupt world and are surrounded by uncontrollable circumstances that are to their disfavor. The protagonists are usually morally noble and have to perform a courageous act even if it is challenging and comes at a personal cost. Gray’s films have a keen textural feel for human body language and gestures. Cinematographically, his films are shot with steadycams – which means the camera is hand wield - giving the mobile images a shaky quality thus bringing the viewer directly into the subjectivity of the characters and the stories. People are shown buried in crowds, a filmic device that further isolates the already alienated protagonist. This technique hints at how these feelings of sadness are a symptom of existence in metropolis cities.
The story becomes a pretext for a repertoire of themes that Gray illustrates effectively in the film.  Where in the start of the book the narrator first sees Nastenka standing against a railing, presumably on a bridge, the film begins with Leonard on a footbridge by Sheepshead Bay creek in Brooklyn. The same setting of a railing hawks back to the original story. Instead of seeing the women crying by the railing and then harassed by a stranger, in the film Leonard meets Michelle in his apartment building hallway. He gets her away from a fight with her father and invites her into his apartment. In both cases She is everything that, he thinks, he wants.
Though White Nights has already been adapted to film by some great filmmakers like Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche (1957) and Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Gray’s adaptation sticks out. This literary adaptation, which is indicated in a pre-credits inter-title, poetically alters the original story. The obstacles of translating a work of literature into film, I think, is being true to the intent of the content and form of the original work. What is so effective of adapting short stories is that they allow for more visual expansion on themes through mise-en-scene than do longer novels that have major themes and longer plots to reproduce. Shorter works can be more fully explored within an hour-and-fifty-minute long film.
The shift in the works title from a rosy description to an ambiguous dyad, Two Lovers, implies now a definite couple and that they are "lovers". A lover is defined as "a person who loves, esp. a person who has or shows a warm and general affectionate regard for others" (Weiner & Simpson 1989). The film Two Lovers incorporates more characters - coincidently more “lovers” - then the original short story. Where in the story the nameless narrator only interacts with the one woman - the object of his desire - and his cleaning lady. In the film there are multiple sets of lovers: Leonard and Michelle, Leonard and Sandra, Michelle and Ronald, Mrs. Kraditor and Mr. Kraditor, and Mr. Cohen and Mrs. Cohen. The title and the social expectation of matrimony are the reasons that Leonard is in the dilemma of having to choose between Michelle and Sandra.
In White Nights the narrator lives with his maid Matrona. In the film, Leonard lives with his mother and father and works at their Brooklyn dry-cleaning storefront. His parents are immigrant Russian-Jews. The Russian heritage is a reference to the original author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’a ethnicity. 
Two Lovers begins with Leonard walking on a footbridge with a bag of dry-cleaning clothes. He perches along the ledge and jumps off. Everything is still. He sees through the water the sun and visions of his ex-fiancée. He changes his mind, rises to the top of the water and yells for help. He is rescued. Then he goes home without thanking his rescuer. His parents are really worried about him, his mother says “he tried it again” and later his father will tell him to not loose any more of the stores clothes. Leonard parents attempt to boost his self-esteem by bringing up his positive qualities. They worry about who he calls at night and about his mental health. When his mother is curious about his late-night activity, she gets down on her knees and peers in to the room through the crack at the bottom of the door. The physicality of someone walking towards a door cannot be translated in the film, so instead what you hear are the creeks of the wood or steps on the carpet. In the film Leonard'a mothers shadow can be seen as she kneels down by the door to spy on him.
The film is emotionally wrenching in its attention to human behavior and gestures. The acting and direction demonstrated through conversations are excruciatingly intimate. In a conversation with Sandra, Leonard reveals to her his healed marks from cut veins on his wrist, scars from past suicide attempts. The notion of perception-as-pain defines Leonard conditions. No matter what he is doing, he does it with raw energy. Whether it is when he is down-looking, holding hands, getting lost in Michelle’s eyes, shying away from family dinners, is giddy and hops, or tells a joke (after being asked what is his secret, “If I told you it would not be a secret!”).
One of the reasons Two Lovers is emotionally astute is due to the painful-lonely-charming character of Leonard who is acted by the Joaquin Phoenix. Coincidently during the promotion of the film Phoenix had a nervous breakdown and was confrontational in an interview on the David Letterman show and retired from acting to pursue his music career. Here you have an actor whose character persona and real-life behavior is blurring together. In the film, Leonard raps for Michelle and her friends in a taxi on their way to a nightclub. It is also interesting that Leonard is a fan of movies (e.g. he talks about them, his wall has a 2001: A Space Odyssey poster) and he is photographer, his mother exclaims "He takes wonderful black and white photographs", as these two qualities are shared by the filmmaker Gray.
To further comment upon the difference in the two works title's: White Nights is a literary title as it conjures an images, a task that involves creativity. To visually imagine a “white night” is difficult as night is typically black and dark. The title itself posits a contradiction. Imagery that comes to mind to describe a “white night” includes nighttime on a snow-filled landscape, a neighborhood of white buildings, or in an obtrusively illuminated environment. In Two Lovers the most true-to-the-book interpretation of a “white night” is one of the films most cathartic scenes and simultaneously a scene that is cut short. Leonard and Michelle talked about their love for one another and their immediate plans to move to San Francisco together. Then they have sex on a hut on their apartment rooftop. Following, in a long establishing shot, there is the white brick hut, which hides them, it is dusk, the sky is white, the surrounding neighborhood is still, it goes off into the distance, church bells are ringing. Pure beauty. Narratively, this scene, this embrace is the heart of the story. Being united for Leonard, and the viewer, represents an ideal that has finally been attained and that later will turn out not to materialize. The scene should have been prolonged.
It is important to examine the two women and what they mean to Leonard. In the story, the narrator explains to Nastenka that he is lonely and shy and would really like to find a woman that accepts him and that she is that woman. She rejects the protagonist after previously and hesitantly deciding to fortify their emotional bond. The protagonist goes from being devastated to be able to find some meaning in existence. This structure is re-iterated in Two Lovers. Now there are two women in competition for his yearning. Sandra represents the safe choice for Leonard, a decision advocated by his parents. She represents a safe and conforming option. Then there is Michelle who represents intense emotions. Leonard loves her and takes care of her. He even picks up her late night calls, tries to take care of her when she is drugged at a nightclub, and also brings her to a hospital where she has a miscarriage of a son from a married man. To quote Leonard, Michelle “is as fucked up as I am.”
Leonard’s father is currently expanding his business with his collaborator Michael Cohen. The two entrepreneurs are planning to open several new dry-cleaning shops in the Brooklyn area. The Cohen's daughter is Sandra. The two families meet for dinner and after a beef roast dinner with pickles, Leonard takes Sandra to his geek-haven room. He turns over a picture of his ex-fiancé.  The parents desire the two Jewish young-adults to start a relationship, for their own sake. Leonard used to be engaged but the marriage was annulled as the two of them had low fecundity levels and they were unable to have kids.
Near the film's end Leonard chooses Michelle. Leonard bought airplane tickets to San Francisco for him and Michelle the previous night on the Internet. His mother, who provides him with unconditional love, stops him on his way out from their new year eve party and tells him to be safe. As Leonard waits outside for Michelle, he notices her room's light is off. She is not down yet, and his surroundings are still. His anxiety leaks out of the frame. Is she even going to come down? If she does not, where is she? Is the love unrequited? Has she committed suicide? Leonard knows she is a depressive. This raw feeling that comes from rendering private moments, accentuated by the suspense of never knowing what is going to happen next, makes Two Lovers so effective and the performances so affective. 

No comments: