Sunday, February 13, 2011

Spelunking Liev

A sensible man will remember that the eyes
may be confused in two ways - by a change from light
to darkness or from darkness to light; and he will
recognize that the same thing happens to the soul. 
- Plato



I've been leading up to this for awhile now. I think back to just three short months ago, when I was aware of Liev's warm eyes, and had only a basic understanding of his genuinely surreptitious smile, which he guards and bequeaths with such discernment. What I was not aware of back then was all the heights and depths and places that studying Liev's career would take me.

Some talismans of this Liev journey have come to me easily, like finding out I actually own the entire Scream series (discovered as close by as my very own basement, along with my French Lit textbooks from University and a R.I.P Kurt Cobain poster). Others came from faraway, exotic places like the $1 PicMe pile at the Salt Lake City Public Library. (According to the sticker on my copy of Operation Filmaker).

The point is I've done lots of digging into Liev. And now, with the film screened, the book read, the doc reviewed and notes taken, I finally feel ready to comment. So, with my trusty Petzel Headlamp firmly in place over my third eye, I'm ready to be enlightened by what I've learned about Liev through Everything is Illuminated.

I always thought, since a feature film is typically 90 - 120 pages, the art of film adapting must be in omission. I see now that the delicate balance fostered also by addition is where the magic begins and where the Adaptor can claim ownership through full immersion. You must be completely cognizant of all that's being said in order to embellish with any kind of conviction. It's pretty clear that Liev inhaled this story and in making it his, he made it ours.

So, let's start with Liev's bravest and most significant omission: historic Trachimbrod. I see many reasons why this portion of JSF's book is its own journey. While supporting the depths of the book, it would have muddied the importance of the characters we got to know and care about on-screen. As for the task itself, how could anyone portray a three hundred year old shtetl and give it the ancient solemnity it requires and deserves, all the while showing the Kolker living with a steel circular saw blade embedded in his skull? I'm glad Liev chose not to take this particular Village in an M. Night direction. Although, I would bet Liev was tempted to show the Kolker's statue changing and taking on the faces of his surviving male ancestors with the passing of time. Some truly remarkable imagery, that.

Was there any better way to paint a picture of the selfish wall (which played such a significant role the Kolker & Brod's marriage) than by not spoon feeding us the gymnastics of the visual and sending it teetering towards some airport Men's Room urban legend?

And what of Brod, herself? To me, she started out gamine, a pre-Black Swan Natalie Portman. But as we grew to know her through the reactions of those around her, she became this ethereal creature. It's a Helen of Troy situation - who wants to try casting that role?   

The second and perhaps most dirigible omission was the epistolary narrative of the book. Liev shows us clarity through restraint, here. There are virtually no passages which take place in the present because even as Alex recounts the most recent events, he is actually reacting to Jonathan's written account of such events. This means that in the book, at any given time, we are never closer than four degrees to what's going on. By scaling back Alex's narration, Liev honours his prominent place in the present story, also giving Grandfather much more relevance. Instead of simply being a chauffeur who can verify the identity of Lista, he becomes our own guide as we get closer to the tale of Safran.

Now, let's look at where Liev gives of himself and puts his own stamp on the story.

Liev's changes to Grandfather serve the film well, bringing the story one step closer to us. Grandfather is transported back to the shtetl from the moment he first looks at the photo of Safran and Augustina. It's wonderful that through Liev's generous spirit the audience is brought in on the secret. Allowing us to understand through Lista and Grandfather's glances that he is in fact Baruch reveals his notch on the roster of the whole grand scheme of things. Also, Liev invokes a keen sense of urgency, with Grandfather's perpetual search for the moon serving two purposes: it acts as a clock in passing time, and as a compass that leads us to that spot on the river's edge.

Making Grandfather Jewish not only heightens his stake in the events, but it also increases the power of the back story as a whole. He was not just a neighbour trying to survive; he too was emotionally invested in the story of the desecration of the Torah. In addition, this cemented the relationship between Alex and Jonathan forever. No longer destined to be simple pen-pals or shtetl descendents, they now have a clear sense of lineage, albeit once removed.  

Many times Liev coaxes us gently away from often used, one dimensional film themes like hate and anger, to degrees of darkness and asks a bit more from us passive participants. He gives us Grandfather sitting in a bath of his own blood just moments after we've left the emotional high of Lista's home. It means now. Grandfather can finally rest with who he is. Book-Alex is so surprised that he punches his dead Grandfather, screaming in his face to try and rouse him. Liev has Film-Alex standing contemplatively in the hotel bathroom, choosing to find his Grandfather "contented where he was."  

While JSF uses a formatting device to foist us breathlessly through the tragic story of Herschel being murdered, Liev recognizes that such a flashback is not the necessary choice for this screen. This shows incredible control. Likewise for Augustine's death; the horror of seeing and hearing it through Listas's eyes serves us much better and makes the impact of her final question - Is the war over? – just that much more weighted.

Judaism is prevalent in this movie but not in the way that the Idiot (from the Documentary) thinks it is. He claims that it's a Jewish movie because the Director and some of the Cast and Crew may have a healthy reverance for the High Holidays. And one critic calls JSF's book a self-involved Holocaust story. Seriously? Is that really the best they can do? Yes, we see a Star-of-David or two and sure there are stones on graves. There's even something very Shabbat about the way Grandfather cuts the potato and hands out each piece. But is that what makes up the total content of this film? No.

For me the beauty of the film comes from the aspect of the story which JSF starts and Liev carries to fruition, like an infinite circle. It's the idea of belonging. All his life, Jonathan relentlessly seeks symbols to remind him of people who came before him. He is the Collector of false teeth, playing cards, stamps, buttons, keys, condoms and even a retainer. It's a compulsion that sets him apart. When he meets Lista, the Curator of Trachimbrod, he finds a kindred spirit. They realize together that Augustina's ring is not there because of him, but instead he is there because of the ring. He has a purpose. He is a cog in the wheel, not an island with himself.

When Jonathan walks through the airport, he spots several employees wearing the faces of those who were once cold and brittle. As each one turns to Jonathan, we see they are responsive and warm, bordering on jubilant. I think Liev is making us understand that it is Jonathan who has acquiesced them. Liev bathes Jonathan in a beautiful, white-light cloak of ready acceptance.

I read somewhere that Liev’s original manuscript was much darker than the story he wound up choosing to tell. Apparently it included a scene in which our Hero gets rolled by a hooker. I think it’s interesting that Liev’s mind lead us to something less guttural, more symbolic - this time. Let’s just hope he chooses to direct again soon. No matter how deep and dark that alley looks, or which way the sunflowers are pointing, rest assured I’m in. 

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