Friday, June 29, 2012

Location, Location, Location

By Russel D McLean

Scudder was so drunk. he thought that 'tache was cool
Are some characters wedded to their surroundings?

I watched the 1986 screen adaptation of Lawrence Block’s superb Matt Scudder novel 8 Million Ways to Die the other week. I knew from people who had seen it that there would be problems, but the idea of adaptations intrigues me and I love to see the way film-makers approach novels, often finding that those who have a strong vision produce the most interesting works that don’t always have to be note-perfect adaptations.

However, it always intrigues me when they move characters out of their natural surroundings.

And that’s exactly what they did here with Scudder.

The plot of the film is fairly inconsequential in many ways. It marries together a few different elements from the Scudder books and very quickly sets up his alcoholism after softening (just a touch) the mistake that got Matt fired from the police. Now, what the film has in its favour is Jeff Bridges. Even now he’d be my first choice for Scudder (although the recent announcement that Liam Neeson is to take on the role is not one that I’m opposed to), and here he does a fine job of playing the asshole with the unshakeable sense of responsibility. He’s great struggling with the bottle and acting against his better instincts. But something feels off.

And I realised that its nothing to do with Bridges or the character of Scudder.

It’s the fact they moved him to LA.

LA, the town that has so many personalities it never feels entirely cohesive. LA, where the sun shines and the city sprawls.

Matt Scudder does not belong there. Even the way the script portrays, you know that he is New York man, that he belongs in the crowded, occasionally dirty, always edgy city that is New York. Matt Scudder does not belong near the beach or the houses of the Hollywood stars. He is dirty, grungy, hard-bitten. He is New York. And New York is not LA.

And that’s where everything falls apart. Matt is so out of place in this new location that everything else begins to feel wrong. No matter how good Bridges’ performance is, it never feels right. And let’s not even talk about some of the odd narrative jumps or the strange, hallucinogenic way he gets involved in his “case”. It often feels like we’re missing half the narrative that was meant to explain some of the characters’ motivations here.

Oh, and Andy Garcia’s little pony tail is hilarious. As is his weird accent “Hello, Mr Scooder,” he drawls, pretending to be all Latin American and sleazy.

Following this, I watched SLAYGROUND, an adaptation of the Richard Stark novel of the same name. His character, Parker, is something of a drifter. He does where there’s a job. He’s not wedded to one place, but he is wedded to a country. Which is why it strikes me as odd that they took a book whose sole purpose is to trap Parker in one location (an abandoned fairground) and then move him all the way across America before – for no good reason – suddenly sending him to England where he gets to team up with Mel Smith in a finale that seems almost an afterthought to that great title.

It was bad enough watching this poorly made, poorly conceived adaptation while Parker… sorry, Stone… blundered across America displaying none of the professionalism that we had come to expect from the character in the novels. But when they moved him to the UK, suddenly everything felt deeply, sickly, wrong. The entire mis-en-scene was screwed. The character and his story did not belong there. And there was no strong reason to move either there, other than the script seemed to say it happened.

Location can make a massive difference to character. But not always. Take the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which does not suffer in the slightest from moving to the states after the novel was set in the UK. Why? Because Hornby did not wed his characters to place. He did not create them to be English so much as he created them to be geeks.

Its just something that struck me, especially with these two movies, that some characters are integral and part of the place they come from. They become unstuck when moved, somehow lesser. And the more I think about it, the more we do associate certain characters, especially in crime fiction, with place. Marlowe with LA, Hammet with SF, Rebus with Edinburgh (and look what happened when he moved to London – it really didn’t work), Holmes with London… I guess what I’m saying is, a movie needs a strong reason to move narrative location and has to work twice as hard to make us believe in the change, especially when its characters are not part of that location but come and are a product of somewhere else entirely.


Thomas Pluck said...

It is very true. Location is a character, an aura or an umbra around the other ones.
I still haven't seen Shaft in Africa, either. Shaft's a New York guy.

Anonymous said...

I thought the 8 Million movie was a mess from the get-go. I don't think I got past the first 20 minutes because I couldn't wrap my head around Scudder hopping off a police chopper with "LA County Sheriff" scrawled across his cap.

On the other hand, the Mitchum version of The Big Sleep didn't work because it was simply done cheaply with an actor too old for the part. The one thing that did work in that movie was the London setting. That might have been because Chandler was English, though. Otherwise, Marlowe is a creature of LA, and not modern LA either. His is the LA of Chinatown.

Russel said...

Thomas - I will one day see Shaft In Africa. In its way I think it could work, because Shaft is attitude as much as location, but it might feel odd (and I could be very very wrong).

Jim - I actually kinda liked the first twenty minutes, the "origin" if you will, but it was after that things went rapdily off the rails for me.

Haven't seen Mitchum version of TBS, but odd you should mention "modern" as I though the 70's update in THE LONG GOODBYE worked brilliantly, but then it worked precisely because Marlowe was so out of time in that flick and it was a very deliberate part of the whole mis-en-scene.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

I can't imagine Sam Spade in Omaha or someplace.