Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Michael Ondaatje on The Hustler

Michael Ondaatje's reason for selecting The Hustler for his Cinema Salon showing earlier this evening at the VIFC had to do with the craft of the film - viewing the film at age 19, shortly after coming to Canada. It was the first time - I can only roughly paraphrase - that he became aware of film as a work of art, consciously crafted to take a certain form, and it left a lasting impression on him. To my surprise, he had little else to really say this evening - certainly he had little prepared; he shared his enthusiasm for the movie, and praised the lovely new print we were privileged to watch, but offered no particularly deep insights, placing himself not particularly above the audience in terms of his thoughts about the movie - he was actually quite down to earth and relaxed about the whole event, which, don't get me wrong, was quite pleasing to see; I had never imagined he would be an approachable sort, and besides, I went to see the film on the big screen, not to hear him. He did TALK, mind you: Ondaatje expressed considerable enthusiasm for Walter Tevis' (non-SF, post-alcoholic) novel about competition, third in a sort of series after the two Fast Eddie books, The Queen's Gambit - a chess novel that I have on my shelf but have yet to read, including an enthusiastic blurb on the front cover from him. I was somewhat disappointed, though, that he had next to nothing to say about the differences between the novel of The Hustler and the film, which fascinate me; he confessed that he hadn't looked at the book in something like 25 years, and invited me, when I asked, to explain the different ending, which I did. I actually re-read the novel expressly for the purpose of being prepared to see the film again on the big screen, so that, if the opportunity arose, I could engage Ondaatje, as a fellow fan of both Tevis and the film, on the topic. Ah, well - so much for having done my homework!

Anyhow, for those curious, the film IS very different from the book. What makes the movie so remarkable is the archetypal force of the characters; though Bert, Sarah, and Eddie are all wholly believable, their trajectory seems pregnant with meaning. It resonates deep in the viewer's mind - at least is does mine; it is impossible not to think about fathers, teachers, competitors, lovers, losers, hustlers and predators when watching the film, to position yourself among these characters, to see them as types and polarities also present in ones own life, and to try to abstract some sort of lesson from their drama: what does their interrelationship teach you about life? What is the meaning of Sarah's suicide, of Bert's need to defeat others, of Eddie's need to win, and - where does it leave you, as a human being? What do your own feelings during the film say about your own failings, your own vices, your own virtues? Why do you feel so RECOGNIZED at times in the film - when these characters are mostly talking about pool and gambling, neither of which you might give the slightest damn about? As one of the audience members commented after the screening, getting Ondaatje's agreement, it seems a very moral film, which is very true. Oddly, though, for all it's moral force, all the sense that you've learned a lesson from the film, it's very difficult to tidily "sum up its meaning." Asked about this, Ondaatje shrugged and said it was about the characters, about "everything," and didn't really try to grapple at all with it. I don't blame him, and I will follow suit, but -

- what really interests me about the difference between the film and the novel is this: much of this "archetypal, moral" quality of the film - the sense that you are supposed to be drawing lessons from the experience - is present only IN the film. In the film, things unstated or very subtle in the novel are accentuated, underscored, made more obvious - one example would be Sarah's shockingly bold comment at the bus station that the four hours before her bus (allegedly) leaves wouldn't give her and Eddie very much time (...to have sex). It's a great line, really surprising and revealing, and got a laugh from the audience, but while its absolutely true to the characters in the novel, it is, in fact, an invention of the screenwriters - who time and again strive to accentuate the developments in the book, to exagerrate them, to make them larger than life and thus more "cinematic." (Sarah's speech about how if Eddie ever says that he loves her, she'll never let him take the words back - one of the most memorable moments in the film - is also their invention). This tendency for them to underscore passages in boldface, to state the unstated, to really dig deeper into the meat of the novel, strip away some of the unnecessary details and get the essence of things on the screen is responsible for most of the "archetypal" quality of the film, and also says a great deal about the differences between cinema and literature. While, obviously, one does think about winning and losing when reading the novel, and learns and grows along with Eddie, the book is much more concerned with staying true to its characters and finely observing their lives, perceptions, emotions; and none more than Eddie's. It is much MORE about the "characters and everything" than the film; it's compelling and rewarding and a really admirable novel, but in the way of a very well-drawn character study, and the sense that you've just watched a Greek tragedy or an obscure morality play situated in poolhalls is almost completely absent when you close the book. You may wonder how much of Eddie is in you - but you won't wonder what the meaning of the Eddie-Bert-Sarah triad is; it's just not a question that will come up.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the ending. In the film, Sarah insists on coming to Kentucky; locks horns with Bert; and is eventually seduced and destroyed by him, committing suicide out of her own despair - her belief that she is "perverted, twisted, crippled" - but also, perhaps, to rescue Eddie from Bert's clutches, as a sort of desperate act of love. (This is certainly the effect her sacrifice has; it's almost a Christian act, dying so that the one you love may live). All of this is a complete departure from the book, in which Eddie goes to Kentucky alone; there, he vacillates between two extremes. He thinks Sarah is too much of a loser, too romantically drawn to dramatic failure and suffering (and alcohol); he wonders if she will just hold him back. Yet more instinctively, when he passes a jewellery store, he finds himself contemplating buying a wedding ring for her. He decides, finally, that he can't be with her in the long term, that he's indulging a folly, and goes on about the business of pool, playing Findlay. When he next sees her, it is clear that he has decided to move on, but he offers her a very fond goodbye, and wants her to know that he really did think about buying a ring (he gets her an expensive watch instead). She understands and accepts, and he walks out of her life into the final confrontation with Minnesota Fats (and Bert). Nowhere near as dramatic as in the film, and nowhere near as pregnant with MEANING - but also nowhere near as contrived. Sarah's suicide and the events that lead up to it actually betray the realism of the novel and even of the film, to some extent - we leave the poolrooms and bars and suddenly find ourselves in a Hollywood melodrama - a really GOOD one, but one that definitely does have the mark of Hollywood on it, and of drama and of Greek tragedy and all that, too. A lot of things totally extraneous to the game of pool and the novel's fixation on what it means to win; the story of The Hustler (the film) brings to mind Wim Wenders (once famous, now probably forgotten) quote - which I'll have to paraphrase, so long has it been since I've seen it mentioned - that stories only take place in stories.

So different are the two experiences, the novel and the film, that I've never really been able to choose between them, as to which I like more. The film is a great adaptation of a very good novel; it probably ranks higher in the hierarchy of great American films than the book ranks in the hierarchy of great American novels; but comparing the two is quite a lesson in how an adaptation can be faithful and yet still be radically different.

On the way out, I offered my copy of The Hustler (which I'd brought along) to Mr. Ondaatje, as a thank you for having selected this film - it was great to have seen it on the screen. He said he had a copy of it around somewhere, but thanked me - and signed the book I thrust at him. He seems like a nice chap... maybe I'll get to The Queen's Gambit sometime soon.

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