[WATCHED: March 17, 2010] Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
This film is based on the short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. The book is a collection of short stories. The majority of the stories are indeed, brief interviews (although some are unrelated). And the film is an adaptation of these interviews. It did pretty poorly at the box office and has met with largely negative reviews. And I think for the most part that’s understandable. If ever a film was made for a select audience, it was this. And it’s very easy to see why a vast number of people either didn’t like it, or didn’t get what he was trying to do.
The interviews in the book are designed so that you only hear the responses of the “subject.” You never hear the initial o follow-up questions, and you don’t learn anything about the questioner. In an NPR interview, John Krasinski reveals that DFW told him that he felt that the stories were a “failed experiment.” He wanted to create a character without actually writing anything about her specifically. He wanted the reader to insinuate who the interviewer was based upon the answers and reactions of the subjects. He felt that he was not successful in doing so.
When Krasinski read (and re-read) the stories, he pictured who the interviewer was. And so in his script, he created an interviewer (because a movie without the interviewer would have done even worse at the box office!). His interviewer is a young woman who is working on a post-doctorate in feminist studies. When Krasinski told DFW this, DFW told him that that is exactly who he had in mind. This great interview reveals how excited Krasinski was at getting DFW’s blessing.
Obviously, I’ve read the stories. So I don’t know what it would be like to watch the film without this knowledge. And, as someone familiar with the book, I think Krasinski did a great job at making a compelling story out a difficult text. The actors were uniformly solid: funny, bitter, poignant. I’m not sue how much he edited the source material (it’s not like I memorized the stories) but he certainly left enough in tact, and I recognized certain phrases as distinctly Wallacian. And, of course, all of the salient points of the interviews are left intact.
But my favorite aspect of the film was the way the subjects intertwine throughout the story. It wasn’t simply scene after scene of men bring interviewed. Rather, some of the men talk to each other, some of them talk to the interviewer in a public setting, and one (the Krasinski character) talks to her in her house.
All of the men are indeed hideous in their own way. Some of them are comically hideous (the performance by the Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom subject is great and very funny). Some of them are downright scary. And there is a lot of talk of rape. Two subjects discuss rape from a very personal level, and those scenes are quite harrowing. But Krasinski wisely leaves in, and actually makes the centerpiece, the son of a bathroom attendant. His story is very moving and it looks at men from a very different perspective than the rest of the subjects. And it works as an emotional soother after the more intense sequences.
The most interesting part of the film is Krasinski’s choice for the interviewer’s life. The film is shown in snippets, in a nonlinear fashion. And I think (having only watched it once, I’m not sure if I pieced it all together) that he has created a pretty intense narrative for her. The line about her cutting her hair made me focus on the time construction of the movie). The interviewer, Sara, seems harrowed by the experience of hearing the innermost thoughts of these men.
A lot of the criticisms that I’ve read about the film focus on the lack of continuity, the lack of focus of the movie, or most often, the lack of a point. And yet, the movie isn’t called Conclusive Proof of Men’s Attitudes Towards Women. The structure of the film is such that Sara is looking for answers to a personally traumatic event by intellectualizing it. So, no doubt she is focusing on that aspect of the interviews.
Another criticism, and this one is more valid, is about the nature of the dialogue. How it is “stilted” and “unnatural.” Many said that people don’t talk like that. But the truth is that some people do talk like that. Not many, but some. And, if she is a graduate student working in an academic environment, she will encounter people who talk like that. However, there are many characters who speak in a far more “natural” manner. DFW is offering different vantage points from different people of all walks of life.
The problem is that Wallace’s gift for language doesn’t always translate on screen. When you read the lengthy, verbose passages in the book, they work very well. They don’t feel strained because we are reading them in our head, with our own cadences. When they are spoken aloud, they sound funny because we’re not used to hearing people talk that way. (And that says more about the way people talk now, sadly).
In one of the above interviews, Krasinski says that he thinks the mark of a good film is that you don’t really know how you feel about it. And in that respect he succeeds. I finished the film wondering if I liked what the men said, or even what the “message” might have been. It made me think. And that is the mark of a good film. And I think DFW would have rather liked it.