Monday, May 5, 2008

The Weekend in Frankenstein Retellings: Iron Man & The Savages

I caught Iron Man on the big screen and The Savages on DVD this weekend and I'm glad to say both exceeded my expectations. As I was mowing the lawn yesterday -- something I take time to do at least three times a year, whether the lawn needs it or not -- I had a chance to ruminate on both, and I came away with the conclusion that they're really telling the same story, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, focused as they are on the moral responsibility for what is inescapably our own: the weapons we loose upon the world in the case of Iron Man, the parents we find in the last moments of life in the case of The Savages. Substitute Laura Linney for Gwyneth Paltrow and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Robert Downey Jr., add or remove a few hundred million dollars in visual effects, and we're really talking about the exact same film here.

Maybe it was the gasoline fumes coming off the mower? No, I use an electric mower.

I have to give a hats-off to Tamara Jenkins, the screenwriter of The Savages, for the deft way she handled the problem of dialogue. The character played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a struggling scholar of Berthold Brecht, and at one key moment in the film -- keep reading, I would not call this a spoiler -- he actually stands in front of a chalkboard on which he has written out some of the tensions of Brecht as a dramatist -- form versus content, drama versus political tract, entertainment versus polemic -- and this tension is reproduced in the film itself, especially (I say) in instances where the dialogue comes across as leaden and pedantic, as when characters start slinging terms rarely heard outside of talk-therapy sessions, if not Woody Allen parodies of them. Jenkins' screenplay seems to acknowledge its own shortcomings by chalking them up, literally, as Brechtian. I don't think this trick can work twice, and maybe she wasn't the first to it, but I found it clever.

As the sequels to Iron Man are as inevitable as the tides, it occurs to me that the makers of this emergent big-dollar film franchise are placing a great deal of trust in the sobriety of Robert Downey Jr. I can say he appeared to be more or less sober as he sat in the stands of yesterday's Jazz-Lakers playoff game, but his whereabouts and the contents of his bloodstream are a matter of guesswork by now. Good luck on that! Then again, I suppose they could take the approach of the Batman franchise and cast a variety of actors in the lead.

Do see both, and for that matter, read Frankenstein if you haven't already. It will make you a better person or I'll refund all the money you paid to read this blog post (offer excludes regular internet access fees, opportunity costs of time spent, and assertions of torts).

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