Tag Archives: scott smith

Off Topic: I Was Herded through the Green Vines

Honey, Honey, Yeah.

About a year ago, I listened to the audio version of Scott Smith’s novel The Ruins.

There’s now a film version of this trouble-in-paradise story. Directed by relative novice Carter Smith, adapted by the author himself, and distributed by Dreamworks, The Ruins thrusts half a dozen nubile protagonists into a world of sudden death, injury, and doom in what was supposed to be, for four of them, the last bash before the rest of their adult lives. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), Amy (Jena Malone), Eric (Shawn Ashmore), and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) are vacationing in Mexico to enjoy the final days of their insouciant youth. A quasi-chance encounter with a German named Mathias (Joe Anderson), who randomly befriended three Greeks at the resort, throws the bunch on a trip deep into the heart of Central American jungle vegetation. The four Americans, the German, and Dimitiri (Dimitri Baveas), one of the Greeks, set off to the site of an archaeological dig at a Mayan temple to help locate the German’s younger brother Henrich. What the protagonists find (and don’t find) seal their fates and only a pocketful of luck might save them.

As a text independent of its narrative ancestor but considered alongside other examples of vacation-gone-awry-or-deadly cinema, The Ruins is disappointing and mediocre at best. There isn’t adequate time or charisma conveyed for the viewer to grow attached to any of the characters. While the special effects are predominantly satisfying, and the roles are well-cast, the build-up of dread and peril is insufficiently presented. The plot covers a time frame of three nights and four days total–two nights and three days at the vine-covered mound. The US theatrical release is ninety-one minutes long–the film itself feels about fifteen minutes shorter. It’s possible that to avoid making a two-and-a-half-hour epic, sympathy for the characters and more effective creation and sustenance of suspense had to be sacrificed.*

I’m not going to get into every similarity and difference between the novel and the film. For more comments about the experience reading the book, click here and scroll down to Schtinky’s review. He remarks that “Scott Smith has captured the atmosphere of a strange, exotic land, the horror that envelops futility, and the unsettling sense of when sanity slips away – when a human life is measured by a slice of orange. He captures every detail of thought and action without slipping into boredom or redundancy.

I felt like I was right there in the heat and the vines with them, felt the languid, creeping dread, tasted the senselessness of imprudent action and fruitless inaction. ‘The Ruins’ is a true horror tale, splattered with just enough gore to keep you smacking your lips.

Listening to Patrick Wilson narrate the audio version–and while I was in the process of falling asleep to boot–creates the very sensations and responses that Schtinky articulates. The film, however, pales in comparison. Should I add an “inevitably” or “unfortunately” somewhere before or after “pales”? Having Smith adapt the screenplay may or may not have been the best move, but I don’t think it was the wrong one–if that makes any sense. Rather than have an outsider edit down certain scenes, storylines, or character functions, getting the author of the source material might mean fewer rewrites.

The Ruins, the film, is without a few scenes, begins and ends differently (in key areas), and swaps the deaths of a few characters. Oh yes, here is a situation where it is no mystery and cannot be a surprise that not everyone survives. But you knew that–you’ve at least seen the first Scream movie. N’est-ce pas?

Observations & Miscellania:

1. In the novel, Amy’s camera, a chirping cell phone, bottles of tequila, and other backpacking supplies (a knife, first-aid kit, water, and dried food items) are featured prominently. The Ruins comes across as ripe for product placement, but the film studio and director decided against it–a good decision, I think. The only brand name I could “recognize” is Aquafina (you can’t mistake that bottle), but the name is never directly on screen. I couldn’t catch the writing on the tequila. The cell phone does not receive any conspicuous endorsements. And, while Amy’s camera is still important in terms of plot, receiving close-ups throughout, its brand name is not foregrounded on screen.

2. I would like to mention, though, that the most immediately obvious difference between the book and film is the name of the Greek that accompanies the Americans and German to the dig site. In the novel, his name is Pablo, in the film it’s Dimitri.

3. I wonder how many deleted scenes the DVD will have.

4. *Unless, of course, the viewer isn’t supposed to identify with the characters. The film as it is–and not taking into account any subplots left on the cutting room floor–even portrays the protagonists (especially the Americans) in a less than guiltless light (I’m not jumping on an ideological reading of characters as “dumb Westerners”). The shots of bare buttocks (Jeff’s and Stacy’s) and breasts (Stacy’s) strike me as simultaneously superfluous and illuminating. The viewer is either necessarily placed in this voyeuristic position to view the characters as specimens in some experiment (and thus feel less when bad fortune befalls them); Or, a sliver of rear and profile nudity will lure the target audiences into theatre seats.

5. If you want to know how the characters in the book die vs. the film, please highlight the pertinent words: In the book, which is much more contemplative and sad, they all die. Pablo, the Greek, is the one that eagerly volunteers to be let down the shaft to see what’s down there. He’s the one that falls, breaks his back, ends up getting his legs amputated before the knees, and then dies due to exposure, infection, and the carnivorous vines. Eric is the one who is later lowered into the shaft to report on Pablo’s injuries; Eric is the one whose knee is cut and then ultimately skins himself live to get at the vines that have buried themselves inside his body. He accidentally stabs Mathias when he and Jeff try to pry the knife from his hands. I think Stacy dies from dehydration and the loss of will power. Amy and Jeff are the last ones left, until one day Jeff moves too far from the vines and he’s shot with arrows. Amy slashes her wrists.

In the movie, Dimitri, the Greek, is killed before they make it up the vine temple. Mathias then takes his place in terms of storyline. Stacy and Eric trade places as well. She’s the one that goes in to check on the injured Mathias and cuts her knee in the process; she’s the one that slices into her flesh to remove the invading vines. She accidentally kills Eric when he and Jeff try to get the knife away. She also slashes Jeff’s left palm in that fit of madness. Jeff’s demise is more or less consistent with the book. But Amy gets away–another final girl. In the novel, there’s also a harrowing scene where Jeff and Amy realize that there was never a cell phone–it was the vines all along. The movie swaps Jeff for Stacy.

6. I’m not sure The Ruins adds anything to the aquarium with respect to gore and violence that could top Cannibal Holocaust or Salo aka 120 Days of Sodom.

7. I would not recommend this film even as a guilty pleasure unless you’ve at least read or listened to some of the book. The movie is better suited as an audiovisual accompaniment or aid to the novel than a closed-text film.

8. One of the worst movie posters ever? Aesthetically very unsightly.

9. Jonathan Tucker as Jeff. As needless as his mooning bit was, he’s got a nice bottom.

Read Pete Vonder Haar’s review of The Ruins here.

Click here for the trailer.

Off Topic: There Will Be Cloverfield

I watched There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) on Tuesday night. Based on the novel Oil by Upton Sinclair, Anderson’s film features a Daniel Day-Lewis as fine as he could be; his performance is chilling. His body language, demeanor, and speech pattern transform him into a wiry late 19th and early 20th Century man of ambition and muted compassion. He’s no space heater, but as the protagonist of the film, he is viewed much more sympathetically than the antagonists, for instance, one Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).

Zack Haddad’s review at Film Threat notes that “the cinematography…is breathtaking…. The soundtrack is something to applaud as well. Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame, puts together an ominous score that adds so many layers to the film, making it just that more haunting,” and “there hasn’t been such an amazing character study in film since ‘Citizen Kane’.”

The music is truly integral to creating the psychological tone of the piece and the cinematography reminded me of Hungarian films I’d seen by Miklos Jancso and Bela Tarr.

Trailer for There Will Be Blood

Clip from Jancso’s film The Red and the White.

Clip from Tarr’s film The Werckmeister Harmonies.

I watched Cloverfield last night. Producer JJ Abrams’s name has been attached to this film in every press mentioning, but he didn’t direct it. A Matt Reeves did.

Bronsonfive summarizes the film’s visual style and story as “think Blair Witch meets Godzilla (1954), and since that isn’t the first or last time you’ll see or read that comparison, think of a movie that results in something less profound than either.”

There isn’t likely to be another film pairing to describe Cloverfield, but for me, I’d call it any child under the age of five allowed to handle a camcorder…visually speaking. On the plot front, Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat packages it succinctly as “a going-away party for 20-something New Yorker Rob (Michael Stahl-David), poised to assume a VP position with a company in Japan, is interrupted by a rampaging behemoth hell-bent on taking a very large bite out of the Big Apple, sending a group of friends fleeing through the city.”

Cloverfield is Blair Witch times five on the shaken-and-stirred, and though it simulates the usurpation of point-of-view (as Blair Witch did), there’s a subtle difference in the consequences and implications of the way in which Cloverfield is presented on screen. The “fake documentary” and “footage found” as a narrative device made me more uncomfortable when watching Cloverfield. The home-video aspect* of the story (not just how the film looks) removes the viewer’s ability to choose his visual and psychological surrogate. Hud is delegated the task of filming the going away party and does a steadfast job at it–in that he’s holding onto the camera nearly every step of the way from hands-on to eventual hands-off.

While the Blair Witch Project also consisted of subjective points-of-view, the camera was handed off to the three characters frequently enough so that you felt like you had a choice in which character to live through vicariously. More importantly, though, the voyeuristic quality didn’t feel forced (not to me at least). Furthermore, it was more clinical and exhibited a greater distance between viewer and subject. The Blair Witch characters were making a documentary and were applying standard cinematic techniques; Cloverfield‘s Hud was just holding a piece of equipment that could record sound and moving imagery–without giving a horse’s patoot about holding the damn thing still.

Aside from the virtually constant shaking, rattling, and rolling (narratively justified or not), what really bothered me about the film (and which ultimately makes it intellectually appetizing) is that there were no traditional reverse-shots. Certain characters would enact the “don’t film me, okay fine film me, but now it’s my turn to film you”…and then you are allowed to get the other angle, the reverse shot. Other than those instances, though, the film forces you to look ahead–literally. The camera might turn around to reveal the source of a commotion or to follow a character’s gaze, but depriving you of that reverse shot corners you into the position of whoever is holding the camera. If I had a choice in the matter, I wouldn’t want to be Hud. I’d much rather be Beth.

Bronsonfive ponders in his review: “All we know of them is what the camcorder tells us. The development of these characters is non-existent because it seems that this movie isn’t about them. This tape is played in the exact condition the government found it in. It’s an interesting gimmick that has worked well in other films, but doesn’t really solidify a purpose here. Were the filmmakers ashamed of their creature? They couldn’t actually think that we’d give a shit about these kids, could they?

I believe a level of default concern is achieved precisely through the employment of point-of-view I discussed in the paragraph above. You care not because you want to–you care because you don’t have any other options (but I suppose this realization can only be reached if you over-analyze the way voyeurism functions in the film O1o).

Now, as for the meaning of the word “Cloverfield,” it appears in a title card in the beginning of the eighty-four minute long film. For those that don’t want to read more on this matter, do not highlight the relevant words after the colon: the title card indicates that Central Park was destroyed and renamed something like Area 4551 or something to that effect. Specifically, per Pete Vonder Haar’s review, “The monster’s origin remains a mystery, and no speculation is offered as to where it might have come from. This is a necessary result of the filmmakers’ presentation (everything we see is part of footage from a Defense Department presentation dubbed ‘Project: Cloverfield,’ recovered from a tape found atthe site formerly known as Central Park”), though viewers who like narrative resolution may be a little irritated.

Political readings and allegories are certainly plausible here, but I will avoid them. I shall only add that the images of characters are running and crouching behind cars on Manhattan’s streets can refer to the chaos of living in a city where gunfire and tanks are a daily occurrence.

*The film begins with footage that includes a date and time for when the “home video” was being recorded. As you are watching the footage and noticing that the video isn’t cutting (there are no edits), you might also notice that the time will elapse much faster than real-time (that is if you glance between your own watch and the time on the video, the minutes on the video will go by faster than what your watch suggests).~!~!~!~!~!~!~!~!~!~!~!~

About a year ago, I bought the audio book version of Scott Smith’s book The Ruins (Patrick Wilson narrated). I thought it would make an interesting movie and was imagining the cast possibilities. Well, one of the previews that came with the Cloverfield screening last night was, you guessed it, the film version. The preview suggests certain character and plot changes that will surely invite the scorn of Scott Smith fans. The book is very suspenseful and even scary, but it’s also quite sad–something which may be sacrificed in its celluloid variation.

Click here for the trailer.