Review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

In 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a nifty science fiction novel named Never Let Me Go. Despite the fact that Ishiguro’s narrative was steeped in speculative fiction cliches (organ harvesting, parallel universes, extended human lifespan creating an underclass, the belabored philosophical inquiry over whether an artificial creation has as much of a soul as its creator, et al.), the novel was inexplicably categorized in the fiction section, leading to many uncounted stoned conversations among frustrated geeks over the question of whether twenty dollar bills had been slipped into the hands of bookstore managers. But it was more likely that Ishiguro eluded the genre ghetto, garnering that vital all-access pass awarded to certain literary titans, by way of putting together imagery and story considered graceful and/or beautiful by the cultural elite. (To cite one example, Tommy reacting to a piece of news as if the messenger was “a rare butterfly he’d come across on a fence-post.”)

The literary critics at the time, mostly unfamiliar (as always) with speculative fiction, praised the novel as if nobody had told similar stories before, or as if the “genre” was confined to certain moonlighters. The New Yorker‘s Louis Menand smugly declared that “the book belongs to the same genre as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, counterfactual historical fiction,” as if Harry Turtledove (or Fritz Leiber’s wonderful novel, The Big Time, for that matter) could not exist in the same bookstore. The fiery and often superficial Michiko Kakutani was even more dismissive, writing, “So subtle is Mr. Ishiguro’s depiction of this alternate world that it never feels like a cheesy set from The Twilight Zone, but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.” (Never mind that the majority of The Twilight Zone was truly brilliant and paradigm-changing because of its commitment to writing and acting. Only a superficially bourgeois critic would condemn art purely on its aesthetic.)

And for those of us who read literary and pulp novels because we genuinely appreciated both, it was a bit embarrassing to witness all this ignorance. And let’s be honest here. Take away Ishiguro’s beauty and Never Let Me Go is little more than a rewrite of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Measure of a Man.” At least the British Science Fiction Association had the decency to shortlist Never Let Me Go for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, where Ishiguro lost to Geoff Ryman. (A few years later, the critical elite would deliver similar plaudits towards Cormac McCarthy’s YA dystopian novel, The Road. The great irony is that Oprah Winfrey would be the one to push the book hardest. Through the populist medium of television, Winfrey’s endorsement dwarfed all the fulsome praise eked out by a handful of pedantic mice.)

Now Ishiguro’s book has made its way to the big screen, where the mass medium of cinema hopes to reframe it yet again. Never Let Me Go is hardly the first time Ishiguro has tangoed with celluloid. In 1993, there was a film version of The Remains of the Day put together by the Merchant-Ivory team, a cold and highly overrated team of collaborators who are more committed to putting audiences to sleep than producing art that pops. I have tried to watch the movie three times over the past seventeen years and was only able to make it to film’s end once without falling asleep – and this was only because I wished to respect my sexy videowatching companion, who counted herself as a Merchant-Ivory fan. Yet despite the film’s bland and soporific qualities, it was afford all sorts of award nominations. A more successful Ishiguro collaboration was Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003), but one suspects its giddy qualities emerged only because Maddin and his co-writer George Toles had the decency to rewrite a hypothetical dud. I avoided 2005’s The White Countess, largely because James Ivory had directed the film and I had no desire to relive the trauma of The Remains of the Day in any form.

So when I learned that director Mark Romanek (the man behind the underrated One Hour Photo and several music videos) and hit-or-miss screenwriter Alex Garland (once a brilliant novelist) were involved with Never Let Me Go, I figured that this adaptation would be more Maddin than Ivory, that the Ishiguro cinematic stigma would be salvaged. I regret to report that this was not the case. Never Let Me Go bored me to fucking tears.

The film’s sloooooooooooooooooooooow pace, presumably intended to invite comparisons to needlessly protracted slideshows or weekend corporate retreats, is perhaps best epitomized by the following exchange (character names replaced by variables to avoid spoilers):

A: We’re going to do it.

(Unfathomably long pause before cutting to B.)

B: You’re going to apply.

(Another needlessly fucking long pause before the next line; never mind that all this would have been tightened by the line, “We’re going to apply.”)

A: Yes.

(A pregnant pause. Good Christ, Garland, you should know better than this.)

B: Good.

And that’s it. That’s Romanek and Garland’s idea of exposition. And we’re supposed to accept this weak narrative because the characters here, as the film telegraphs without subtlety, are sequestered from society and committed to providing organs through “donations.” (That’s not really giving anything away. If you don’t figure this out in the first twenty minutes, then you’re not paying attention.) But the atmosphere never feels particularly disturbing (as Romanek’s last feature film did, perhaps more because he had the smarts to tap into Robin Williams’s undeniably discomfiting qualities), which is odd given that Romanek has a great visual knack at conveying isolation (such as the mostly barren blue wall of an apartment or the Gordon Willis-like amber glow of a dark hospital corridor illuminated solely by the sun). Romanek gets the feel of the class structure here by framing many of his shots with the backs of heads to the camera. He gets a great performance from Carey Mulligan, who is especially good at disguising her unshakable sadness, pretending to be human with tragically feeble smiles and fine cheekbones. But scenes from the novel that should feel creepy, such as the scripted laughter at a television sitcom, feel more like obligatory than vital.

The fault here must be leveled at Alex Garland, who has clearly traded in his fiction talent for the lucre of video games and passable screenplays. It’s almost inconceivable to be reminded that Garland once had his finger firmly on the pulse of his generation. Clearly, those days are gone. Garland doesn’t seem to understand that Faulkner and Fitzgerald aren’t remembered for their Hollywood work, but the attentions they committed to the page. And Garland’s failure to evoke Ishiguro’s subtle style on screen isn’t just the indication of a screenwriter out of his depth. It’s the sad story of a burned out talent, once capable of reaching a mass audience and defying myopic critics, who doesn’t even have new novels to atone for the hackwork.

On the Cannibal Film Genre

There’s some more content coming (indeed, there will be a good deal of content published tomorrow). But in the meantime, I feel compelled to direct your attention to this morning’s Barnes & Noble Review, where my essay on the cannibal film genre has just run. What happened here is that my editor had me review a film. Then, knowing very well of my tendency (indeed, one could more accurately style it a full-blown obsessive commitment) of performing serious background research, I began watching a good deal of cannibal films. And so this rather unusual cannibal film essay emerged in its place. You can read the results here. Here are the first few sentences:

The cannibal film, much like its topical larder, may be the genre of last resort. But open-minded cineastes wishing to move beyond Hannibal Lecter’s fey gravitas may be surprised to find an edgy contextual reframing that mainstream cinema lacks the guts to approach.

The Early Films of Jim Henson

Before the days of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Jim Henson was an independent filmmaker in New York, making experimental films between commercial gigs. It was the mid-sixties. According to John Bell’s Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History, Henson was sharing a workshop space for a few months in the basement of a New York City library with a German sculptor and choreographer named Peter Schumann. Schumann specialized in avant-garde performances, entertaining crowds with masks, puppets, and postmodern dance, often employing these for political demonstrations.

In watching 1965’s “Time Piece,” seen above and recently unearthed by Metafilter, it’s difficult to consider it without Schumann in mind. The film played in New York theaters on a double bill with Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and concerns itself with a man (played by Henson) being examined in a hospital. As the clock ticks away, a grand surrealistic array of experiential memories overtakes his existence. Gorillas bounce on pogo sticks. There is the quiet Kermit-like plea of “Help!” Chickens emerge in strip clubs. And all this is intercut with optically printed pixellated squares.

The film is set to a intermittent drum rhythm that echoes the heartbeat of time. What’s particularly intriguing is that, according to David P. Campbell’s The Complete Inklings, “Time Piece” so captured Campbell’s imagination that the film was shown at an a seminar at the Minnesota Statewide Testing Program annual conference, with Henson’s film projected on one screen and the test results of a random individual projected on another. The idea was to show Henson’s film, with Campbell announcing to the students, “We should always remember that there is a person behind each of these test scores; to make that point dramatically, here is one person’s test scores and here is a product of his considerable imagination.”This permissive cultural climate permitted Henson to make “The Cube” in 1969, a teleplay that independent filmmaker Vincenzo Natali appears to have handily pilfered from.

A protagonist, known only as “The Man in the Cube,” is trapped inside a cube of white rectangular panels, with strange individuals who enter and exit through other doors. This premise gave Henson the opportunity to explore a wide variety of topics: racism, sexism, the realm between reality and fantasy. There is even reference to the fourth wall. At one point, a professor addresses the man, pointing out that he is in a television play.

Believe it or not, “The Cube” was commissioned for a television series called Experiment in Television, a now forgotten program that aired on NBC between 1968 and 1971. This series came about because NBC needed filler material to provide late Sunday afternoon programming when the football season had ended. And they decided, quite amazingly, to provide a venue without commercials for documentaries and experimental films.

In the end, it was public television that secured Henson’s rise to fame. But today, unless you’re as squeaky-clean as Ken Burns, your prospects for national exposure are slim. Now that the first season of Sesame Street has been issued on DVD, it’s been issued with a parental advisory reading, “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” The idea of children running around an inner city, looking to learning as a way out, is apparently too threatening a concept.

Given this drastic shift in priorities — the unusual idea of commissioning an experimental film for a testing conference, the now antediluvian notion of creating a space on national television where filmmakers can pursue alternative ideas, and the censure on anything slightly offensive to “suit the needs” of children — one is forced to contemplate the current media atmosphere. Certainly, there is YouTube and the Internet. But this online landscape increasingly values views — and thereby advertising revenue — over notions that are not popular or lucrative, and one wonders just how tomorrow’s Hensons will thrive. Of course, any artist who feels compelled to create will not let any obstacle stop him. But by hindering the spectrum of expression with our priorities (what sells, what’s safe, et al.), I’m wondering if we’re closing the floodgates to those who might have new and innovative ways to get a mass audience excited about the world around us.