Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: From Page to Screen

26Jan10

by The Great White Gypsy

I am a David Foster Wallace groupie.

There, I said it.  The man has a fairly small body of work; aside from magazine articles, he only wrote two novels and four short story/essay collections before committing suicide in 2008.  Even so, he had already established himself as a genius of our time.

I had just finished The Broom of the System after a failed attempt at completing Infinite Jest when I got my hands on a copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the film adaptation written and directed by John Krasinski (The Office, Away We Go).  I was excited to see a filmmaker tackle the disturbed genius of Wallace’s prose and story.  The book had been sitting on my shelf for a while, but I never cracked it.  Immediately after watching the movie, I dropped what I was reading and blazed through it.  And I had mixed feelings.  Not specifically about the film, or the book independently.  More a hesitant opinion of how the two complimented each other.  So I decided to watch the movie again, and realized I couldn’t bring myself to review one without including the other.

THE BOOK:

“Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!”

This phrase is a source of extreme embarrassment for the first subject in Wallace’s story.  Not politically, or ideologically; he is embarrassed because even though he is not a political person, he screams this phrase every time he orgasms.  “…only much louder…”  This is the kind of humor David Foster Wallace loves to lead with.  Descriptive enough to be taken seriously, but strange enough to make you laugh out loud (or LOL for those of you opposed to speaking english).

There isn’t much of a description necessary for the story.  Men are being interviewed, we’re not quite sure why, but personality-wise most of them are kind of…are you ready?  Hideous.  However, as the story builds, we are shown the other side of the coin, and what started out as a feminist undertone broadens into a universal portrait of human suffering and loneliness.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is actually broken into four parts and split up throughout the collection.  At one hundred pages, total, it’s a breeze by itself.  Wallace is like a metaphor ninja.  He starts out light, humorous, and eloquent.  Then you start to see parallels, points, the first hint of the thread Wallace is pulling on, and before you know it, the funny-ha-ha moments have unravelled and you’re staring the dark side of life in the face.

First and foremost, Wallace seems to pride himself on carrying on complete conversations through only one character.  You get half of the dialogue, but you still get a holistic picture of the scene.  BIWHM is no different.  Each “interview” is laid out like the transcript of an actual interview, complete with parenthetical notes, with only the interviewee being audible.  For example:

“I don’t ever know what to say.  What do you say if you just shouted ‘Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!’ right when you came?”
Q.
“It wouldn’t be so embarrassing if it wasn’t so totally fucking weird.  If I had any clue about what it was about.  You know?”
Q…
“God, now I’m embarrassed as hell.”

The downside to this format is that it sometimes becomes difficult to discern which conversations are taking place in a personal setting, and which are done in a clinical research capacity.  There are upsides, though.  Not only do we get to draw our own conclusions, fill in our own gaps, but it definitely sets a tone of scrutiny towards these men.

This cross-sectioning of male characters is basically what makes the story arc.  From the guy who blurts out political propaganda during sex to the loner who based his childhood masturbatory fantasies on Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched.  From a one-armed factory worker whose missing limb (AKA “The Asset”) gets him “more pussy than a toilet bowel”, to an aging pot connoisseur who knows the secret to being the world’s greatest lover.

I refer you to the aforementioned art of “ninja metaphor”.  It is among these characters with their humorous-yet-transparent honesty and insecurities that Wallace inserts the meat of the story.  The man who recalls his father’s profession as a men’s room attendant, saying, “Imagine not existing until a man needs you.  Being there and yet not there.  A willed translucence.”  The man who, while relating a rape story, compares the victim to Victor Frankl, essentially making the claim that without the Holocaust, we would not have “Man’s Search for Meaning”, and out of that torture and rape, a woman (or a person) will live through the worst they ever thought possible, and know themselves better.  And finally, the psychopathic sex offender who chooses his victims much like a man surveys a bar for the easiest one-night prospect.

THE FILM:

If you’ve ever read any David Foster Wallace, you can imagine how difficult it would be to harness the layers, the subtext, the dialogue, and the characters and fit them into a two-hour film.  John Krasinski may not have succeeded 100%, but I honestly don’t know of anyone I’d trust to do it better.

Krasinski saw that BIWHM is essentially about feminism, but not the way you think of the word.  What Wallace started as a broad, objective analysis, Krasinki finished as a very personal view on the effect of feminism on men, as well as the presuppositions of post-feminism women and the similarities we can all share as human understanding.  Krasinski gave a face and a context to an otherwise ambiguous story.  But that’s not all good.

Direction, acting, editing, music were all cohesive to the point of liquidity.  However, cumbersome dialogue aside, I think the film was over personalized.  Several scenes in the movie show the interviewer (who is now the main character with a name, a face, and an agenda) by herself in her apartment, or passing by a one-sided conversation, or overhearing two chauvinists in a coffee shop.  By personalizing the subject matter, I feel the film took some of the power away from the book.

There are some interesting added scenes.  A very brief one in a college classroom, where a professor is discussing Nanook of the North, telling his class to pay attention to the documenter, not the documented.  The rape story turns into a student hounding the main character concerning his grade (a very well edited scene), the bathroom attendant’s son focuses more on the literal relationship between father and son, rather than the parallel between his job and a submissive female.  What were subtle layers and puzzle-piece subtexts in the book are now beating the audience over the head without building to it.

Probably one of the most impressive and simultaneously damaging scenes is the finale, when Krasinski’s character gears up for one of the longest single-sided conversations I’ve ever read.  As long winded as it was in the book, it still held my attention for 20 pages.  Again, Krasinski gives it a face and a context, and he pulls it off as well as anyone could.  However, like most people, I get a case of A.D.D. when faced with a ten minute continuous shot of some dude talking.  I found myself getting distracted, and having to rewind the speech several times.  I suggest reading it first; both versions – when absorbed in their entirety – are truly thought-provoking.

If you’ve read the book, you will enjoy this film.  Some great lines, funny characters, and the main themes of universal empathy, insecurity, and subjective interpretation are all intact.  It is harder to watch Wallace’s prose than it is to read them, but after this “artsy” undertaking, I’m amped to see Peter Jackson direct an Infinite Jest Trilogy (I’m really just kidding, please don’t do that Mr. Jackson).  And as amazing as the end of the story is, John Krasinski might win the day with his final line in the film:

“I stand here naked before you.  Judge me, you bitch!”

Final Grade for the Book: A
Final Grade for the Film: B+

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