Author! Author!

The Quiet American

It probably sounds like faint praise to say The Quiet American is a good story well told, but it’s certainly not intended that way. I mean that the movie is a solid, unpretentious, straightforward, compelling narrative that is skillfully written, directed, designed, filmed, and acted. It won’t knock you over, but you can’t find much fault with it. The only thing absent is the distinctive stamp of an author.

That is by no means a criticism. In a world where every trailer and television ad promotes a movie’s producer or director as if a world-class auteur has come out of retirement to save cinema — “directed by Phil Alden Robinson,” and who the hell is Phil Alden Robinson? — it’s refreshing to find a good movie that’s nearly anonymous, something with very little ego behind it. The distinction is akin to comparing Casablanca to Citizen Kane: They’re both very wonderful movies, but the former is a beautiful group effort, while the latter is the singular vision of one person.

The Quiet American, by the way, was directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, based on the novel by Graham Greene. It’s the story of lazy, detached British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) in 1950s Vietnam who gets more involved in the bloody civil war than he’d like. He befriends idealistic American aid worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who immediately falls in love with Fowler’s Vietnamese girlfriend and can offer her something Fowler can’t: a promise to take her home. (Fowler’s wife refuses to grant him a divorce.) Meanwhile, Fowler’s newspaper is threatening to bring him home unless he starts producing more.

The tone of the story is set at the beginning of the film, when we find out that Pyle has been stabbed to death. Starting at narrative’s end is a trusty old device, but it works well, as the audience tries to figure out how the story will arrive at this conclusion.

It’s a terrific little movie, and the result of a breed of filmmaking that seems almost dead: collaborative efforts in which the major components share the load equally.

The Hours

Unlike The Quiet American, The Hours appears to be the work of a single author, and it’s novelist Michael Cunningham. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare do their best to fuck up what is fundamentally interesting material, and what’s good about the movie comes almost exclusively from Cunningham.

I say this with confidence even though I haven’t read the book. What comes off as obvious and heavy-handed in the space of a two-hour movie will play much better over the course of a novel, for one thing. And while there’s nothing wrong with the way the movie is shot, blame for the combination of its too-blunt structure and some grossly over-the-top performances (particularly from the normally reliable Oscar nominees Ed Harris and John C. Reilly) falls on the director’s shoulders, especially considering the assembled talent.

The biggest problem with The Hours is that it’s insistently literary, and insistently literary things belong on the page, not on the screen. It’s not that movies can’t (or shouldn’t) be literate, but that movies by their compact nature require a greater subtlety than novels to be effective. The filmmakers don’t need to emphasize that we’re supposed to draw parallels among the lives of these three women, but they do, most painfully at the outset, when Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) writes, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) reads the line in Woolf’s novel in the 1950s, and editor Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) appropriates the line when talking to her lover in the present. This juxtaposition makes intelligent viewers feel like somebody’s beating them over the head. The fact that the three separate stories are in the same movie tells you to compare and contrast them; you don’t need more.

The artless weaving together of the storylines is the movie’s biggest miscalculation, an inelegant structural choice. As I wrote a while back, I’d love the opportunity to re-assemble some movies, and this is a prime example.

I would tell the stories separately. The modern-day narrative logically comes last because of its relationship to one of the other stories, so that leaves two possibilities: leading off with Virginia Woolf’s segment or Laura Brown’s.

The former option makes perfect sense, putting the stories in their chronological order, and having Woolf’s segment first places the rest of the movie in context. Yet it’s pretty damned dull.

I’d rather kick off the movie with Brown. Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway are introduced as themes, but they’re not revealed at the outset as the organizing principle. The second story — Woolf’s — will force viewers to re-evaluate Brown’s narrative, and as the center piece it provides symmetry to the whole.

Of course, this would move my The Hours closer to the open-ended nature of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling than Daldry’s shove-it-down-your-throat approach. But people willing to see a movie such as this have already proved themselves intelligent and curious enough to make their own connections.

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