Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What we talk about when we talk about Raymond Carver

So the challenge for any film that attempts to adapt a Raymond Carver piece to the screen is to translate the author's distilled lyrical brevity into a theatrical-length script. One approach (and arguably the best) is to take a whole mess of Carver short stories and mash them together (i.e., Short Cuts by the late great Robert Altman). Everything Must Go, which came out on DVD today, focuses solely on Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?", (full disclosure: from my favorite American short story collection of all time) with predictably mixed results.

First, the film falls victim to one of the classic blunders: don't ever re-title a Carver short story. He was arguably the best title-er in American literary history (with Philip K. Dick running a distant second). "Everything must go" is prescriptive rather than provocative, and that pretty much sums up my problems with the movie. As much as I love films that suggest that healing and redemption can happen simply by and through undergoing a major life trauma, that ain't Carver's game. You have to work for moments of grace; they don't happen just by virtue of being thrown out of your house by your wife. Will Ferrell's Nick Halsey, though played with the perfect Carverian combination of cynicism and hope, gets off a little too easy.

However, what the movie gets right is the way that one conversation can either save your life or break your heart. Carver's fiction never commits the cardinal sin of showing rather than telling because he jettisons the categories. He shows through telling. It's sort of like if you jammed all of Fitzgerald's lush emotive description into Hemingway's stark "one true sentence." The way Carver's characters talk to each other reveals everything you need to know about them, and their past sins, and their future promise. Nick's encounters with a young misfit and an old high school acquaintance offer a taste of this theme, but it is most perfectly realized through his loaded dialogues with his neighbor Samantha.

Everything Must Go is definitely worth a rent, but promise me you'll also read the collection from whence it came. It'll make your heart bigger.

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