Monday, April 25, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau meets Paradise Lost

A few days back I saw The Adjustment Bureau, a movie in which Matt Damon plays a candidate for the U.S. Senate and aspirant to the presidency, in theaters now. The movie's conceit is that there has pretty much always been a corps of 'adjusters' who tweak 'accidents' and incidents when we hapless human beings stray off The Plan to which our lives are required to adhere in a pre-determined, no-Mary-there's-no-such-thing-as-free-will sort of way. The film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story, Adjustment Team, published in Orbit magazine in 1954.

Sometimes I go to the movies as a sort of neuronal colonic. I guess a lot of people do that kind of mental flossing with television, but, well, I've got my limits.

The movie was okay. There were parts of it I really liked, actually. Parts of it were flat-out ridiculous, but hey, that's just the sort of irrigation I paid for, matinee price.

What was ridiculous? Oh, the usual boy has to have this-particular-girl hyperbole. Chase scenes out the wazoo. The stiff, bureaucratic, Wim Wenders angel knockoffs are all stiff and bureaucratic, except for Harry, the one bureaucrat who has a heart, and helps the hero, and -- guess what? -- the actor cast to play him is the only African-American with a non-incidental role in the Bureau. Get it? He's different! [There's some wish-it-were-clever nodding to the Philip K. Dick original here: aspects of the role played by Harry in the movie are played by a black-haired dog in Dick's story.] No disrespect to Anthony Mackie, who played one of the most engaging characters in the film, much more so than Mr. Damon's tired working-class-bad-boy-claws-way-to-top-then-spurns-it-all-for-love role.

"Why do you people care who I love?" asks David Norris (Damon)

"It's not about her. It's about you," explains heavyweight Adjustment Bureaucrat Thompson (Terrance Stamp).

"Sigh," sez' me. That kind of sums up the flavor of formulic that made the movie so much less than it could have been. Here, from Tad Friend's "Funny Like A Guy" in the 11 April 2011 issue of The New Yorker, is what I'm talking about:

The Bechdel Test is a way of examining movies for gender bias. The test poses three questions: Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man? An astonishing number of light entertainments fail the test.

Guess which film, playing in theaters near you even as I type, fails the Bechdel Test in this viewer's humble opinion?

But -- to be fair -- there were some seriously sweet bits too.

I kind of liked that the off-stage character who passes for God in the story is referred to as The Chairman by his bureaucrat minions.

And the location location location? Cinematographer John Toll was given all the leave he needed to make love to New York with his camera. I think it might have been the sexiest depiction of the best island on earth since Woody Allen's eponymous Manhattan.

Then there was the sucker-punch at the end. Now this one's going to be a reach to depict in a few words, and the reasons I found it so compelling might just be my own personal ... idiosyncrasy.

[Spoiler alert!!!]

It's the end of the film. There's been a(nother) big chase scene, the heavyweights pursuing David Norris and his girl, Elise Blunt, through a New York that's full of magical doors that lead from downtown to MOMA to Yankee Stadium, just step on through. (I think it was Yankee Stadium. I've never been, but you figure if it's a ballpark in a movie set in New York ... apologies to Mets fans, I'm not really a sports guy.) Anyway, they've worked their way up a stately high rise (a digitally enhanced Metropolitan Life North Building) and are standing on an observation deck high over the cityscape -- as if the Depression-truncated building had been built to its originally intended height. It's a gorgeous view, and Harry is explaining the laughable reason that -- all of a sudden -- everything's going to be okay. (On the laughable question: Elise -- the girlfriend character -- passed her 'test' and co-earned permission for the lovers to live happily ever after. Wanna know how? By ... wait for it ... trusting her guy and doing exactly what he told her to do. That's right, Bechdel's nightmare.) In the end David Norris asks how he and Elise are to get down off the high rise. Harry says, "You can take the stairs."

"You can take the stairs."

I went tingly all over. Wanna know why?

Because -- here's the stretch part -- I am just certain that the end of John Milton's Paradise Lost inspired that line. And the thought, sitting there in the movie theater, brought all the disparate tropes of the film into line: the bureaucrats assigned to "adjust" individual lives, the clear filmic reference to Wings of Desire (Der Himmel ├╝ber Berlin), the no-questions-asked allegiance to The Chairman ... and that the most interesting of these angel-bureaucrats is the different, disobedient one who helps the hero, causes him to understand the real terms that underlie the world's workings, but in the end is helpless to keep The Chairman from sending the lovers back to the old mortal coil. Just like John Milton's Satan, the most compelling character in the tale. And so:

They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Do you buy it? "You can take the stairs" vs. "with wandring steps and slow..."?

Well, I guess Milton casts a long shadow still, at least in my literary landscape.

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