Posted by: zhiv | January 19, 2009

Revolutionary Road Movie Thoughts, Part Two

note:  I still had a little note to complete here, and I didn’t want to go to a 3rd part so I added it to the end.

FINDING APRIL WHEELER

I left off in the last post with a showboating flourish in my own best Yatesian vein, prompting one of my cronies, Studio Frankenstein, to grunt “heavy” as I was walking him through the zhivblog for the first time.  The truth is that I was gasping at the finish and diving at the tape, as exhausted by that writing session as I had been anxious and eager to form and record some thoughts on the film and its relation to the book.  And then there was pressure to type it and put it up on the blog, while trying to handle the onslaught of the first two weeks back at work in the studio salt mines.  The MLK 3-day weekend couldn’t have come at a better time, with the only downside that we’re sending our daughter Iszy back to college on the holiday tomorrow, and I’m extremely psyched that by the next time I go back to work (what does one do in a salt mine?  shovel?  pick-axe?) we will have a new president.

So my thoughts on April Wheeler didn’t quite come out the way I planned (sorry about that Mom–probably a good thing she’s not so up on computers and stuff).  The movie does a good job of setting the terms of the conflict behind the feminist revolution that is to come, albeit in a somewhat less nuanced and cynical way than what we see in the novel.  We feel the power of April saying that she’s going to work as a secretary in Paris, that she’ll support Frank while he figures out what to do.  Somehow April’s plan seems very specific and detailed in the film, and there’s an emphasis created by showing her buying boat tickets, telling the kids, and pursuing the job process.  This specificity, following April around in ways I don’t remember from the book, services what I called in the last post the corporate seduction plot, creating simple, accessible terms for marital conflict.  Frank can be promoted in the job he disdains and they can keep up with Joneses and surburan conformity, or they can bail out to Europe where April can work and Frank can find something meaningful to do.  I mentioned that we don’t have the clearest sense of Frank’s panic at the prospect of finding himself, and we don’t have the most powerful version of how his defensiveness causes him to attack April and her ability to earn a living and become a professional.  Blake Bailey’s new Slate piece does a masterful job of linking up April Wheeler to Emily Grimes in The Easter Parade, and exploring Yates’s dark view of the loss of simple values and authority and what he saw as the dead end of feminism.  And I’ll mention in passing that the new Everyman omnibus volume, which Bailey is using as a prompt and which contains RevRoad, 11 Kinds, and The Easter Parade, is a perfectly-timed and packaged second step for the new Yates readers generated by the film.  You want to know what might have happened to brave, yearning April Wheeler?  Here goes, said Yates in 1976, after spitting out the demonic Disturbing the Peace, let’s take a look at where this feminist revolution has taken us so far.  Bailey and others seem to think that The Easter Parade is a deeper and more accomplished and mature work than RevRoad, and they’re probably not wrong.  To do this right, I would have to look carefully at Bailey’s text and James Wood and all of the other good writing about Yates that is appearing just now–it’s the bonanza we expected, the high class problem of gold beyond your wildest dreams–, guaranteed not just by the film but also this new Everyman volume, but we know from the last time that I don’t have that kind of focus and stamina.

What I’m curious about instead is where April came from, not where she might have been going.  Now that I’m getting to know Yates fairly well (lots of fun, that is) the degree to which his fiction is both autobiographical and prismatic is striking.  By prismatic I mean that Yates will project his attitudes and experiences into different characters; there’s probably a better word for the process.  The comments in part one about Shep Cambell taking on some of Yates’s frustration about lacking a college education is one example, and Yates’s identification with Emily Grimes in The Easter Parade while putting his experiences into other (male) characters in the book is another.  So let’s say you’re like me and you were knocked out by reading RevRoad, so you move on (with Everyman) to 11 Kinds of Loneliness (routinely cited as Yates’s post-war NYC Dubliners) and The Easter Parade, and then you read Blake Bailey’s great biography.  At that point you see the extraordinary degree to which Yates was writing out his own hard life and struggle; there are a lot of dots to connect, and they only provide the roughest outline of Yates’s fictional artistry.  It’s impressive and disturbing.  But right now I’m considering something that gets forgotten in advanced Yates studies, perhaps because of the sequence.  And it’s the same question, the one that isn’t answered by the film:  who is April Wheeler?

The obvious answer is Yates’s first wife, Sheila Bryant.  And sometimes literary serendipity is a bit of a bitch:  pulling down Bailey’s book to check her name, it randomly opens on page 180:

The writer Edward Hoagland, who befriended the Yateses around the time, described Babaril as “a place for people at loose ends”–offhand he recalled such tenants as a reclusive Hallmark artist and a man in the middle of a bitter divorce who worked out his anger by firing a pistol.  “You never knew who you were going to run into,” Sheila complained, though she noted that some tenants were more permanent than others.  There were the Joneses, of course, whose five children became playmates of Yates’s daughters; the father George, a dull but amiable man with a white-collar job in the city, was recruited along with Sheila to perform in the Putnam Playhouse production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  By then Sheila had “lost interest in that sort of thing,” but gamely went through the motions as Titania, while George Jones proved a remarkably able clown.  A far more illustrious cast member was Will Geer, than a well-known character actor who later became famous as Grandpa Walton.

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Sheila Bryant was an actress of sorts, or even such a close model for April Wheeler.  I was going to talk about the artistic aspirations of Yates’s mother, Ruth “Dookie” Maurer, which play such a big role in his life and fiction.  And I was thinking that Dookie was more present in April’s character than she really is.  Oh well–good to know, and that’s the way it goes sometimes.  If you want to know about the scotch bottle horse and April, Bailey’s 4th chapter, “Liars in Love:  1947-1951” is the place to start, where Sheila’s father Charles Bryant is described, along with her brother Charles, the model for John Givens.

And Bailey also writes this:

At some point he renewed his acquaintance with one Jeff Macaulay, an Avon classmate known for having coined the word ‘plerb” (“a synonym for anything you need a synonym for”); Macaulay is also noteworthy for having introduced Yates to Sheila Bryant, who at the time was having a small party at her mother’s apartment on East Sixty-first.

Plerb.  Sounds a lot like zhiv.  Which is what this line of argument turned out to be, but at least now I have a better idea of where to find April Wheeler.

BECOMING DON DRAPER

Time to jog to the finish line of this phase of Yates analysis, as I’ve covered most of the points on the brainstorming page I put together after seeing the film.  The ideas for analyzing the corporate seduction plot of the film are perhaps scattered about well enough to add up to something now, and it’s worth looking at some different effects of the film and its conclusion.  The corporate seduction plot lines up neatly with Yates’s own ending, where Frank is indeed working for Bart Pollack Associates, but somehow it feels different, and in the novel there’s a stronger sense that Frank is a shell.  In the film it seems as if the corporate world wins.  Frank Wheeler becomes Don Draper.

Because of the nasty suburban dead wife-suicide-abortion thing, and dumping the kids with a relative, it does seem that Frank might want to change his name and get a fresh start, no?  I thought that the film did a great job of setting a higher cinematic register for recreating the period than the engaging one we see in Matthew Weiner’s TV show.  Now that we’ve seen the film, it’s worthwhile making the comparison.  My sense is that the average filmgoer and TV watcher isn’t especially aware of the power and effect of production design and cinematography, but the RevRoad-MadMen comparison provides a rich case study, with all sorts of antecedents for both of them.  RevRoad–shot by Roger Deakins–has a completely different color palette, although you can see a hint of the brooding nighttime MadMen Manhattan tones in the establishing shot and the party in the apartment where Frank and April meet.  Overall the film is bright and flat and sun-drenched and suburban, looking for its subtleties in the Dutch domestic manner of light streaming in from the windows, with its characters often fighting the glare of life under pressure out in the backyard or at the beach, or under the flourescent glow of an open office.  It seems that MadMen tries to approach this glare–it did a good job when it was obvious, when Don Draper went to LA and Palm Springs–but in general it doesn’t come close.  RevRoad is more firmly anchored in suburbia than MadMen is, and we see Frank and April in washed out beige and tan tones and the gentlest pastels.  The gradation flows nicely when Frank and the lost legion don their gray uniforms and go to work in the city.  Mendes and Deakins and Kristi Zea (production design) and Albert Wolsky (costumes) do a great job of making the gray flannel suit an exclamation point (losing, I would argue, the war veteran/Shep Campbell point in the process), and it’s interesting to note its relative absence from MadMen.  Any late-boomers like me who grew up in the suburbs will probably feel that the light and palette in the film matches their memories more closely than MadMen, since were were two or three years old and not hanging out much in smoky Manhattan bars.  The film diminishes the tics of smoking and drinking in MadMen just a bit, making them seem silly, but we don’t want to be too hard on an excellent TV show, which is swimming in a very different ocean from a prestige, carefully-measured film adaptation of a neglected classic novel.  I meight even have to say that, in the end, MadMen scores a victory of sorts.  Its primary focus and concern is the darker, brooding Manhattan world of the corporate insider, the war veteran who is detached from the past, creating a new, hard-edged persona that lives in sleek executive offices, plush restaurant and cocktail bar booths, and knowing lovers’ apartment bedrooms, disconnected and trying to find home in the suburbs with wife and family.  Yates knew that he himself was an outsider and a loser, that he would never get more than a glimpse of the world of boardrooms and corner offices, whether it be in publishing, computers, or advertising, and in the novel Frank Wheeler shares a boozy cubicle in quiet desperation and hopeless emptiness and no true thought of getting any further.  But the filmmakers of Revolutionary Road are unable to resist the temptation of cool, clean modernism and the lure of corporate Manhattan.  April is sacrificed, but DiCaprio’s Frank Wheeler, braced up just slightly from Yates’s weak and desperate misfit, is well-launched, and in the end it seems that he becomes Don Draper, a man who will prosper while forgetting the past.  Probably the first thing he does is he goes out and buys a dark suit for the funeral; it will serve him well in his rise–you never see Don wear gray.

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