Gilbey on Film: Adapting Bret Easton Ellis for the screen

Director Paul Schrader has started shooting "The Canyons" with an original screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis.

 

It’s heartening to hear that the director Paul Schrader has now started shooting The Canyons (tagline: “It’s not The Hills”) from an original screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, thanks in part to financing provided by the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Schrader, Ellis and the film’s producer, Braxton Pope, had already put up a $100,000 budget but they went on to generate a further $60,000 by making this appeal through Kickstarter. The cast includes the underrated Lindsay Lohan and the porn actor James Deen, whose CV, regrettably unfamiliar to me, includes such promising titles as Hot For Teacher, Bobbi Violates San Francisco and Fuckenstein
 
The consensus is that Bret Easton Ellis’s writing has not lent itself to a cinematic rendering. Ellis has been publicly critical of the adaptations of his first and third novels, Less Than Zero and American Psycho respectively, though it’s always worth keeping up with him on Twitter, where you can not only catch him making announcements about how The Canyons is shaping up (“gorgeous composition…Influence: Godard’s Contempt”) and lobbying to adapt Fifty Shades of Grey—you might also happen upon the odd, uncharacteristic note of contrition about his earlier broadsides. Only the other day, he tweeted: “Just caught some of Mary Harron’s American Psycho and was surprised how good it is. I’d been lightly dissing it but I’m wrong. Polanski...” [sic] (And the [sic] was not just for that dangling mention of Polanksi but for the phrase “I’m wrong”, not something you hear often from Ellis).
 
He was complimentary, though, about the 2002 film of his second novel, The Rules of Attraction, written and directed by Roger Avary. “Bret sneaked into an early screening,” Avary told me in 2003. “I was mortified. He’s not known to monitor what he says, and I had heard he didn’t like the other films based on his books. But he told me it was not only the best adaptation of his work, it was one of his favourite movies.”
 
Indeed, it brings a new and compassionate dimension to Ellis’s “difficult” second novel—“difficult” in this context meaning “like wading through a cesspool.” It wasn’t the drug-addled, vomit-soaked sex that rendered unpalatable Ellis’s induction into life on a fictional New England campus so much as the misanthropy: all human life was DOA. Avary translated Ellis’s despair into sensitivity, and included humour that wasn’t exclusively of the gallows variety. Everyone in the movie was still going to hell, but you sensed that Avary considered this a bad thing. 
 
The director has had his own experience of the cesspool, having served eight months in prison for DUI and manslaughter. Now he is back at work, and his screenplays for two more Ellis adaptations are being championed—by Ellis. Avary’s film of Glamorama has been on the cards since long before his jail term; in 2005, he even made an as-yet-unseen “interim” movie, intended to act as a bridge between Rules and Glamorama. This expanded upon the virtuoso section midway through Rules when Avary absconded from the narrative for five minutes to follow a minor character named Victor on a hedonistic jaunt around Europe. The director and his actor, ex-model Kip Pardue, did it for real, partying hard over two weeks with Pardue in character as Avary trailed him with a DV camera from breakfast to bed. “Kip would bring girls back to the hotel room, they’d be making out. And beyond. I have no interest in making pornography. When I felt I’d got enough of what I needed, I’d go back to my room. There was no need to stick around until the final cigarette.”
 
Avary edited the 70 hours of Victor footage into an accompanying 2005 film called Glitterati, which has not yet been seen. But as well as Glamorama, Ellis is championing Avary’s script for his most accomplished novel, Lunar Park. They’re a good team: they understand each other. Avary coaxes out the easily-overlooked humanity in Ellis. And Ellis responds by doing the most helpful thing possible: not griping.
 
"The Canyons" will be released next year.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Roger Avary's "The Rules of Attraction"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge