Los Angeles Times

Fitting the film fragments together

Hartford Courant

Today's film audiences understand fragments.

They can think in nonlinear segments and isolated, seemingly disconnected events.

They can time-travel better than Mr. Peabody and Sherman and the WABAC Machine.

They trust that disconnected threads and themes and events will come together eventually in a manner that signifies something more than chaos.

"The Hours" and "Adaptation" depend on this.

"The Hours" and "Adaptation" further depend on a multitude of movies and television shows and commercials, novels and symphonies and pop songs that have come before, and educated audiences to the pattern of splinters and time change and fracture that is the governing structure of both narratives and the ultimate challenge to both sets of filmmakers.

Could the structure and content of "The Hours" exist without Proust and Flaubert and Beethoven?

Would "Adaptation" be possible without the faithful, formalist structure of "Mrs. Dalloway" or "A Room With a View"? Could it have been written without the influence of Woody Allen, channel surfing and the Cuisinart?

Would we get it?

An adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Hours" requires that director Stephen Daldry, screenwriter David Hare and editor Peter Boyle weave together the stories of three women -- author Virginia Woolf, a 1950s housewife and mother named Laura Brown and a contemporary New York editor named Clarissa whose best friend is dying of AIDS complications.

"Adaptation" depends on director Spike Jonze's ability to film the interior life of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose eponymous principal character (played by Nicolas Cage) is attempting a screen adaptation of Susan Orlean's book "The Orchid Thief."

Both films succeed on the basis of the filmmakers' respective skills at dramatizing what is internal. In both, it is the thoughts in each character's head that are more important than whatever action is taking place.

It is in the editing of "The Hours" and "Adaptation" that both films capture and define the essence of what they are about and create a dynamic representation of those realities.

As critical as the narration in both pictures is the collision of scenes, and the manner in which the audience connects the dots between fractures.

From the earliest frames of "The Hours," Daldry and his collaborators make subtle links among three very different women. All three are introduced in recumbent positions -- lying in their beds, eyes open, ruminating.

As the film develops, this casual link is reinforced in carefully staged sequences. Repetition of visual cues is imposed on the mundane movements of the women's day-to-day lives. Nicole Kidman's Woolf leans down to wash her face in a basin of water, and Meryl Streep's Clarissa pops up in the next shot, her face soaking wet. A vase of flowers provides a visual link between Clarissa, who buys flowers, Laura Brown, who is given some by her husband, and Virginia Woolf, whose English country house is filled with them.

The edits compose the links among the three characters, whose similarities evolve in the alchemy of scene juxtaposition.

It is the edits that reinforce an audience's dawning realization that these women are linked by something less obvious than the period in which they lived or the superficial circumstances of their lives.

In "Adaptation," the sequence of edits that opens the film is a brilliant technical manifestation of Kaufman's state of mind. The film opens on a black screen with Cage voicing Kaufman's comically self-lacerating thoughts. The film shifts to the set of "Being John Malkovich" in 1998, then blinks back to the prehistoric era when planet Earth was an "endlessly barren and lifeless surface." The camera stays put for a time-lapse sequence encapsulating the entire history of Earth's evolution -- from single-cell multiplication to the birth of a crying newborn.

Where to now?

Jonze and company transport audiences to the present day: the interior of a tony Los Angeles restaurant where the action of the story begins.

What does the audience derive from this neurotic whirlwind?

"Adaptation" will take place as much in the present as it does inside screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's head. Its segues will not always make organic sense, but they make sense to the principal organism, Charlie Kaufman.

The way the world is presented to film audiences is inseparable from the way in which Kaufman sees the world -- with all of its trips and skips and neurotic leaps -- and the film will revolve on the tension between what is happening in Kaufman's brain and on the surface of his everyday life.

Almost no one who read "The Hours" could imagine the film version. It was, everyone seemed to agree, too fragmented, too interior, too densely literary.

If Kaufman had tried to explain his film "Adaptation" to anyone but director Jonze, who previously collaborated with the writer on "Being John Malkovich," it is unlikely it would have been made, being far too risky and void of action.

But an audience's ability to "get it" can now be assumed by filmmakers to a degree that makes both pictures possible and extraordinary in what they have achieved.

Filmmakers are not always as talented and perhaps as lucky as Daldry and the Kaufman-Jonze team. When fragmented story lines and scene collisions don't work, audiences wind up sorting the scenes in such pictures as Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," a beautifully shot attempt at an epic story that succumbed to its fractured narrative.

So what does it all mean?

The evolution of our culture has occasioned the evolution of our audiences, which has occasioned the evolution of our films.

Today's audiences are handling what amounts to visual hip-hop, the narrative fruits of movements in art that range from post-expressionism to deconstructivism to rock 'n' roll and rap.

On screen at our multiplexes are the effects of generations of television, years of computers and Internet, interactive computer games, the Cuisinart, channel-surfing and CNN's newsreel.

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