October 17, 2007

The Lethem Picture Show

Brooklyn author and honorary BAM curator talks cinephilia and adaptation with The Reeler

By Annaliese Griffin

Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time, screening Nov. 12 at BAM as part of Jonathan Lethem Selects (Photo: Warner Bros.)

For the next month Jonathan Lethem's brain will be on display at BAM. In an abstract, thematic way, that is: The Brooklyn author has curated Jonathan Lethem Selects, a series that offers both a film history primer (to the extent that can be accomplished in eight films) and an illustration of his personal cinematic hagiography. Launching earlier this week with Akira Kurosawa's High and Low and continuing through Nov. 19, the series fulfills Lethem's responsibilities as the Friends of BAM chair, an honorary position bestowed each year upon a well-known and film-savvy Brooklynite. To some degree, it also pushes the definition of the auteur theory to include curators as well as directors.

"I'm walking distance from BAM, and I wanted to go to the movies," Lethem told The Reeler in a recent interview at a café near his Boerum Hill home, explaining his balance of logistical concerns with films that traced an autobiography of his cinematic education, nevertheless excluding personal favorites that he has watched time and time again. He winnowed a list of 25 or 30 films by omitting selections that had screened recently at BAM or other cinemas around New York. Regular readers of his work will recognize familiar themes in his choices, starting with art-house classics, progressing through classic films noir and Westerns and finishing with Cassavetes' Love Streams. On the other hand, readers of Lethem's recent book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, may note with surprise the exclusion of Kubrick, The Searchers and other films he has identified as influential to his work.

Practical matters also took some selections out the running. "I wanted very badly to show Michael Tolkin's The Rapture," Lethem said, swigging his grapefruit soda. "The studio would not loan their single print of it unless I had an event of such significance that they regarded as worth their effort and risk, so there was a moment where I had almost coordinated things and Tolkien was going to come out. But that didn't come together."

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The single print of the 1978 Dustin Hoffman drama Straight Time is being loaned under similar conditions, and it's a good thing: Considering the program as a whole, Lethem points to the Nov. 12 screening -- featuring a discussion with director Ulu Grosbard -- as his most highly anticipated moment of the series. "It's such an actor's film, and it's such a feast of '70s style [and] New York method," he said, rattling off a list of cast members he admires and sharing an indelible Harry Dean Stanton moment from the film. Lethem also identified Straight Time's obsessive characters, doomed by their own fatalism, as a jumping off place for his own work.

Lethem has long been a fan of art that is influenced by or filtered through other art; the collage work of Robert Rauschenberg and De La Soul's appropriation of Steely Dan are among his favorite examples of cultural recontextualization. To this end, he started The Promiscuous Materials Project, an online database of his short stories offered to dramatists and filmmakers to adapt to the stage and screen for free. Great novels reborn as lackluster movies provided some of the intellectual background for the project, and in skirting conventional copyright arrangements, Lethem hopes to push conventional relationships between source material and adaptation.

"In the history of filmic adaptations of novelists that I think are interesting, the examples like Huston's adaptation of Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) -- where it's extremely faithful and a marvelous film -- are far, far fewer than the examples like Blade Runner and To Have and Have Not," Lethem said. "The Hemingway and the Dick are interesting texts, and the films that come from them discard enormous parts of the material, take them as just jumping off points and then go on and make an interesting film. I think that's a much more common result, or at least the kind of result that interests me. Not The Shipping News, right? That's what I never need to see."

Author and BAM guest curator Jonathan Lethem (Photo: Random House)

Three of Lethem's own novels -- Motherless Brooklyn, As She Climbed Across the Table and The Fortress of Solitude -- have already been optioned for films. Fortress is in pre-production with director Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace); Lethem has not yet seen a completed screenplay for the other two. While he didn't express any particular anxiety about the translation of his own work from page to screen, Lethem is keenly aware of the stakes. "I don't really feel a possessiveness like, 'Oh, it's going to be taken away from me,'" he said. "But it just might feel sort of unpleasantly dislocating to watch a really wrongheaded or really drab adaptation of something that you wrote."

Whether or not The Fortress of Solitude succeeds as an adaptation according to Lethem's standards, its arrival on the screen will only strengthen his identity as a member of the Brooklyn literati. Yet even as someone who acknowledges that he has long worn the borough on his sleeve, Lethem resists neat categorization. "My two big Brooklyn novels create such strong expectations that I'm going to become the Faulkner of Brooklyn,” he said. "I've never been very committed to that strategy, as much as it may have become a nice way to brand the books." That unintentional franchise is only expanding with Lethem currently at work on a new novel he described as, "Lovecraft meets Saul Bellow, like a cosmic horror creeping over the extremely contemporary lives of privileged intellectuals."

Quickly qualifying the exuberant confidence of his précis, he laughed at the simultaneous vagueness and specificity of the description. "But I'm just beginning," he said, "So all of these descriptions are total hogwash."

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