Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Appreciation: Paul Auster

My interest in writer-director Paul Auster began in an unassuming manner. While browsing a local bookstore, I noticed a copy of his book, "The Book of Illusions" in the bargain bin. I decided to buy it, remembering the charm and grace of the two screenplays he'd written for director Wayne Wang in the mid 90's which turned into two films, "Smoke" and "Blue In the Face". I begin the novel on a plane ride, and finished it up very shortly at home, extremely moved by his dense storytelling and passionate detail of the varied streets and brownstones of New York. More novels followed, and my appreciation for his linked themes grew. Then, I doubled back and revisited the four films his name's been associated with, starting with his two directorial efforts, "Lulu On the Bridge" (1998) and "The Inner Life of Martin Frost" (2007) and then the two films framed by his scripts. Not only is he a gifted novelist, but his films contain an eye and ear for the same magical qualities that flow throughout his books. Whether he's telling a story on a flat page or embellishing the narrative on a cinematic canvas, the themes are hard to shake- from his creation of a protagonist usually in the form of a recovering widower becoming involved in thriller like episodes to the intimate love affairs that rise up out of tragedy with wit and believability, there's a common backbone to his tales. Paul Auster the novelist is never far removed from Paul Auster the writer/director. And it's this fascination with certain ideas that makes Auster such a compelling artist to listen and to watch. No other writer or director quite understands (and successfully pulls off) the magical qualities inherent in coincidence or happenstance. And watching these coincidences mingle with real life turn Auster's stories into complex and moving depictions of men and women embracing the 'otherness' that life serves up. A wrong number in the middle of the night.... sickness causing a man to watch TV at 3am and finding a new purpose in life... being on-stage when a man enters the bar with a gun... or walking the New York streets and bumping into an old relative... all of these simple chance encounters develop into life-shattering journeys. Some end happily, others do not. The only sure thing in Auster's universe is that something will happen. Half of the fun lies in just how deep the reverberations will sound. And through Auster's books and films, these reverberations have sounded loudly to me.

The Novels

Framed in a decidedly New York state of mind, Auster's novels are sprawling yet intimate portraits of groups of people in New York City. Sprawling due to the often cob-webbed array of characters but intimate because so much detail is given to describe the minute details of their various sojourns around the city. So much attention is given to the city geography in Auster's novels that they often come accompanied by a small map of the "paths of the characters" in the flap of the novel. And no section of the city is spared- from upper Manhattan to the depths of Brooklyn, Auster's men and woman are vehicle-less souls left to ponder and observe the expansive city on foot. Another common thread to the novels (and much like his scripts) is the tragic depletion of emotional attachments to the main (often male) characters. Whether it's divorce and a chosen life of solitude, sickness or a plane crash, Auster's main protagonists are empty vessels for an adventure. All but given up on finding happiness again, its the coincidences and hands of fate that magically set in motion so many of his novel's narrative strands. In my favorite novel, "The Book of Illusions", the theme can't be echoed any louder. A writer, suffering with the loss of his family in a plane crash, inexplicably stumbles across the silent films of a vaudeville comedian named Hector Mann. Seeing this as a viable reason to quietly re-enter his life, the writer sets off on a personal journey to write the ultimate biography of Mann, eventually finding a great deal more than he'd planned. As a novel, it's virtually unfilmable. Almost all of Auster's novels seem unfilmable. They're so dense and wind back and forth in time and place, that they can probably only exist in novel form. With the exception of director Philip Haas adapting Auster's allegorical book "The Music of Chance" into a quirky early 90's film, the closest Auster has come to self adapting his own writing is the 2007 film "The Inner Life of Martin Frost". Based on one of the fictional films of Hector Mann discovered by the writer in "The Book of Illusions", the film-within-the-book takes up approximately 10 pages in the novel. Auster fell in love with the idea so much, that he assembled a small cast and filmed it last year. In his latest novel, "The Brooklyn Follies", the milieu is similar to that of the film "Smoke"- an entourage of closely intersected New Yorkers dealing with life, new love and old family ties. But the real marvel of the book comes on its last paragraph. After creating a joyous and lively story, Auster closes his novel with "it was eight 'o' clock when I stepped out onto the street, eight 'o' clock in the morning on September 11, 2001 just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift over toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death. But for now it was still eight 'o' clock, and as I walked along the avenue under that brilliant blue sky, I was happy my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived." It's easy to use the September 11th tragedies as a crutch to elicit easy emotions from people, but in "The Brooklyn Follies", the crushing realization that the entire novel before this statement was simply an evocation of a city and a world ultimately changed, and one begins to understand the quiet devastation that builds in all of Auster's work.

While the two books mentioned above are seemingly intertwined in the way they juggle common themes, there's also a divisive quality to Auster's novel. The book "Timbuktu" takes as its point of view that of a dog named Mr. Bones. Not only a bold narrative move, but it gives Auster the leverage to point out some pretty damning flaws about man that might've been lost otherwise. Auster has also played with the conventions of film noir in his trilogy including "City of Glass", "The Locked Room" and "Ghosts". Stripped down to the barest essence of a crime novel, each one is a quick read but they often come back to haunt you. Giving characters names like Mr. Blue and Mr. Black, eschewing major plot points altogether and jumping ahead in time (think "No Country For Old Men"?), and spending 50 pages on the details of how to successfully tail someone around New York City, it felt like Auster was sick and tired of the usual hard boiled novels and tapped out three short novels in his distinctive voice that are "noir" and "thriller" in the loosest sense of the word. Other books by Auster including "Oracle Night", "Mr. Vertigo" and "Moon Palace" are interchangeable for the way they mysteriously throw a journey on someone and describe the character's adventure in haunting and believable ways. I've yet to read one of Auster's books that has failed to immerse my senses. Each one is distinct in time and place, even though the terrain may be the concrete jungles of New York. And when he turned to film, he crafted 4 films that immerse the viewer in this same distinct style. But Auster's entrance into the film scene wasn't a curtain-call for his novels. Even during this manic stint in the mid to late 90's, he continued to write, producing some of the best novels of his life. His intelligent voice and attention to 'stopping time to tell a story' naturally progressed into images on celluloid. He simply expanded his work to a broader audience.

The Films

The opportunity for Auster to jump behind the camera came when director Wayne Wang, whom Auster had collaborated with during the writing of the screenplay for Wang's 1995 film "Smoke", asked him to co-direct. As Auster himself explains on the commentary track, when the typical moment of departure came between writer Auster and filmmaker Wang, the moment was subverted by Wang's insistence that he hang around and help direct the picture (much to the dismay of the Director's Guild). Auster complied and this relationship carried forward over 2 films. After the finale of "Smoke", the cast hung around and knocked off a second, more improvisatory feature, entitled "Blue In the Face". While both films feature enthralling attributes, it's the simple idea of storytelling that sets "Smoke" apart. This is a film full of mesmerizing stories, none more so than the final one told by actor Harvey Keitel as the camera slowly closes in on his face for over 4 minutes. It's a simple, direct moment that epitomizes the singular mind of Auster. Two men, shaken by tragic pasts, share a quiet moment together, talking in their Brooklyn neighborhood. In fact, this brief description could serve as the plot synopsis for a majority of Auster's work. But besides the art of storytelling, "Smoke" is also a heartfelt exploration of family.There's one character (a wonderful Harold Perrineau) searching for his father (another wonderful Forest Whitaker), one character (William Hurt, the alter ego of Auster here) reeling from the tragic death of his pregnant wife, and then Auggie (Harvey Keitel) suddenly confronted with the revelation that he has a daughter whose pregnant and struggling with drug addiction. In between the bits of verbal wisdom, writer Auster and director Wang crafted an emotionally compelling patchwork of characters that rivals the gentle wisdom found in so many of Robert Altman's best films.

With "Blue In the Face", the cast of "Smoke" (and assorted stars like Michael J. Fox, Roseanne Barr and Lily Tomlin) hang around the same cigar shop depicted in "Smoke" and laugh, curse and largely improvise their way through 12 different vignettes scripted by Auster. While not a complete success, it's an engaging effort that grows on one if they can accept its gimmicky nature. This is, after all, an actor's film and Auster and Wang allow for their stars to have their moments in the sun.

Auster's first solo directorial effort was 1998's "Lulu On the Bridge", a magical little film that deserves to be seen twice so one can fully engage with it on several levels. The cosmic games it plays with its two main characters, Harvey Keitel and a stunningly cute Mira Sorvino, is pure Auster- Izzy Keitel), a jazz musician, is wounded by a random shooting in the bar as he plays a set one night. Recovering from this accident, he loses the will to create music. As he's walking down a dark New York city street one night, he finds a man lying dead. In his hand is a paper bag that contains a phone number and a rock. He calls the number and connects with struggling actress Celia (Sorvino). Bound together by the seemingly magical powers of the rock (which begins to float and give off a powerful blue light), they are eventually separated when Celia takes the part of Lulu in an adaptation of "Pandora's Box". It's not long before thugs come looking for the magic rock and find it in the possession of Izzy. I completely understand... even reading this last paragraph to myself it sounds exaggerated beyond belief. But Auster makes it work. The connection between Keitel and Sorvino is highly electric and everything is explained in the end, but it's the weird diversions and sense of cosmic coincidence that makes "Lulu On the Bridge" such a unique experience. And, when comparing this film to some of his earlier novels, the idea of fate, chance encounters, and mystical allegories isn't out of left field. "Lulu On the Bridge" fits neatly into his canon.

It wasn't until 2007 that Auster returned to filmmaking with "The Inner Life of Martin Frost", a film that (as mentioned earlier) is the only attempt to adapt his novel work- or in this case 10 pages from a 275 page novel. Starring Martin Thewlis as a writer who retreats to a friend's Vermont cabin to recover from his weary profession. But (and auto biographical I'm sure) he suddenly gets the idea of a new novel and begins writing. Upon waking the next morning, he finds Claire (Irene Jacob) lying next to him in bed. She claims she also came to the cabin to rest and wasn't aware of Martin's presence. Slowly, they began a relationship, but an odd sickness falls over Claire and Martin begins to re-assess his focus in life. Like "Lulu On the Bridge", Auster is working on several layers here. Not only is this a chance meet between a couple that develops into a passionate romance, but the undertones of something otherworldly begin to seep to the surface. Playing it close to his vest for most of the film, "The Inner Life of Martin Frost" is not a completely successful venture. Gone are the longueurs of storytelling. Restricting himself to a tight narrative, there seems to be little room for the small moments, and things only become clouded in mood and tone when neighbor Jim (Michael Imperioli) and his niece, played by Auster's own daughter Sophie, show up. The film, given a small release in late '07, was afforded little word of mouth or critical favor.

While I've still got a few Auster books to go, his career in literature and film has been a rewarding journey for me. Not only have his words been a silent passenger with me on planes, but listening to his commentaries on all 4 DVD's reveals critical insight into his creative mind. Precise and deliberate with his speech, I'm sure he'd be a fascinating conversation. He's a man full of stories (whether they're true or not) and even as he speaks, one can sense more stories brimming to the surface. But, above all, Auster is a humanist and the essence of every single thing he writers boils down to 1 word- camaraderie. Whether it's killing time in a cigar shop or walking the streets of New York admiring the color of the leaves, Auster instills harmony in every passage, every frame and every story. I wish more artists had the courage to attempt that.

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