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For Sale: On Revolutionary Road

"One thing I'm willing to bet [about a "Revolutionary Road" screenplay written in the 1970s] is that it made the Wheelers a lot more sympathetic than they ought to be. It was a common misconception when the book was first published, even among good critics. Quite simply, Yates meant for the Wheelers to seem a little better than mediocre: not, that is, stoical mavericks out of Hemingway, or glamorous romantics out of Fitzgerald. Rather, the Wheelers are everyday people -- you and me -- who pretend to be something they're not because life is lonely and dull and disappointing."

-- Richard Yates biographer Blake Bailey in Slate (June 26, 2007)

Plot and thematic spoilers ahead.

"How do you break free... without breaking apart"? That's the rhetorical question posed as a tag line in this trailer (above) for Sam Mendes' titanic version of Richard Yates' 1961 novel "Revolutionary Road," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

But is that what "Revolutionary Road" -- the movie or the book -- is about? Does it even scratch the surface? I wonder if this is being sold as a story about two extraordinary people who might have fulfilled their promise... if they hadn't been stifled by the suburban conformist pressures of America in the 1950s. If only they'd broken free and gone to Paris where people really feel things!

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That isn't what it's about.

OK, so the trailer is only a sales pitch for the movie version, and "Revolutionary Road" would not be one of the great American novels if that's all there was to it. Bear with me; I know they're works in dissimilar media, and that one doesn't physically alter the existence of other. Having loved the book many years ago (and now that I'm re-reading it about six weeks after seeing the Mendes movie), I wonder how much of my interpretation of the movie and its performances were colored by the novel... and what the filmmakers' take on the novel is meant to be.

In the movie (and the trailer), April Wheeler (Winslet) says to her husband Frank (DiCaprio): "We're like everyone else! ... We've bought into the same ridiculous delusion... this idea that you have to settle down and resign from life." And, for her, being "like everyone else" is a fate worse than death. So, April persuades her husband that they must move to Paris because, he's told her, "People are alive there. Not like here."

Meanwhile, everyone else here -- at Knox Business Machines, on Revolutionary Road -- says the Wheelers are attractive and promising and destined for great things. They see themselves as extraordinary, too, and the unfulfilled or unfulfillable dreams they nurture are among their mechanisms for keeping that layer of denial intact. They'll always have Paris (even if neither of them ever did) because they need their idea of it to feel special. For Frank, at least, actually moving to Paris, therefore, poses a threat (and a gauntlet insidiously or unwittingly thrown down by April) that he isn't equipped to face.

In a superb New Yorker appreciation of Yates' work month, James Wood described the novel as a "nimbly prismatic" work that "does not allow us an easy point of agreement":

It seems to offer a familiar critique of the suburbs, of the kind we know from movies and books like "American Beauty" and "The Ice Storm," in which the streets are amok with hysterical housewives and angry soft men. [...]

Yet "Revolutionary Road" pointedly does not rely on those overfamiliar, superficial stereotypes. So it troubles me a little when a critic as good as Michael Wilmington (who, in fairness, notes that he hasn't finished the novel) writes in his review of the movie:

Yates, a bit like John Cheever, writes in that slightly dry, chiseled, ironic, luminous American prose that both castigates American middle class culture and, in an odd way celebrates it -- or at least celebrates the artists ensnared in it. The book is about how marriages collapse and how artists and would be artists or outsiders suffer in the more materialist realms of Eisenhower America, and that's a worthy subject.

Assuming that is so, it's only the tiniest piece of the subject of "Revolutionary Road."

Likewise, I am aware that Sam Mendes trying to promote his movie when he gives interviews, but this comes across as downright misleading -- unless (god forbid) he really thinks that's the primary focus of the book, and his movie:

It deals with this idea, that I think a lot of people -- friends of mine, contemporaries and even me myself at certain points have felt -- which is that you somehow find yourself living a life you hadn't quite expected and certainly one that you didn't really want to live. You find yourself compromising the ideals and the dreams you had when you were younger.

Todd McCarthy gets much closer to the mark in his Variety review of the movie. With an appropriately ambivalent mixture of regard and dissatisfaction, he describes it as "faithful, intelligent, admirably acted, superbly shot" and "a near-perfect case study of the ways in which film is incapable of capturing certain crucial literary qualities, in this case the very things that elevate the book from being a merely insightful study of a deteriorating marriage into a remarkable one."

Literature, movies and social commentary have all been down this road many times before, stressing the conformism of '50s upper-middle-class life, the emotional sterility of the suburbs, the hypocrisy of attitudes, the sexism, et al. What keeps all these too routinely accepted views safely in the background here is the stinging emotional truth that courses through the novel and, to a significant extent, the film, thanks especially to the electric, fully invested performances by the two leads. Frank and April are like a 20-years-younger George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" who have yet to achieve an unstated equilibrium in their epic tug of war. [...]

With one notable exception toward the end, Haythe and Mendes capture the primal emotional and thematic points of the book as they try to find a cinematic way to express the subtext of Yates' prose, which most distinguishes itself through the precise expressions of minute changes in emotion, attitude and thought -- what might he say, what should she say, what does he feel, what's she really thinking, how did he and she react at the same moment? Even when the dramatic temperature is cranked up to high, the picture's underpinnings seem only partly present, to the point where one suspects that what it's reaching for dramatically might be all but unattainable -- perhaps approachable only by Pinter at his peak.

Wood suggests another reading:

"Revolutionary Road" is a brilliant rewriting of "Madame Bovary," with one signal difference -- at the end of Flaubert's novel, both Emma and Charles Bovary lose, because she commits suicide and her dull husband is utterly bereft. In Yates's savage inversion, the wife loses but the dull husband secretly wins: though deprived of wife and children, he prospers at work, and finally secures for himself the safe, settled world that his wife died trying to dislodge.

I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think I see what he's saying. Since I first read the book in the early 1980s, I've thought of "Revolutionary Road" and another Yates masterpiece, "The Easter Parade" (both newly published along with "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" in a hardback Everyman's Library edition, with an introduction by Richard Price), as "Beast in the Jungle"-type stories, about (how to put it?) characters whose destinies become apparent to them only in retrospect, long after their course has been determined. Nothing extraordinary about that. (See Bailey's quote at the top of this post.)

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The novel begins with a dress rehearsal for a doomed, amateurish production of "The Petrified Forest" by the Laurel Players. April is one of them, and she never gets over her feelings of failure, disappointment and shame -- or forgives her husband (the one who was supposed to rescue her from her fears of her own mediocrity) for witnessing it.

And yet, her greatest failure is her regard for Frank ("the most interesting person I've ever met"), who is thoroughly commonplace. Sure, he's a liar, a weakling and a phony -- but not in any particularly interesting way. He's a dime a dozen, and that's what's ludicrous and terrifying about him. Perhaps he's just a better actor than she is (I'm talking about Frank and April, not DiCaprio and Winslet), or perhaps she's just the best audience he's ever had.

Casting two beautiful movie stars as the role-playing, scene-staging Wheelers presents its own set of problems. Can we believe that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are ordinary people who behave as they do because they are deluded into thinking they're better than "everyone else"? I have my doubts. Surely star-power is what got this famously "difficult" project made after all these years, but how does it affect perceptions of the material itself? Could this be a case of "Atonement" syndrome, where a well-made movie actually discourages audiences from feeling the sharper point?

There's a frighteningly funny (passive-aggressive?) moment when April switches from petulant to passionate, and claims that she's been holding Frank back from achieving his dreams. They both acknowledge they aren't quite sure what those might be, but Frank is instinctively reverse-defensive, scared to death at the prospect of finding out:

"... I mean, who ever said I was supposed to be a big deal?"

"I don't know what you mean," she said calmly. "I think it might be rather tiresome if you were a big deal. But if you mean who ever said you were exceptional, if you mean who ever said you had a first-rate, original mind -- well, my God, Frank, the answer is everybody. When I first met you, you were ---"

"Oh, hell, I was a little wise guy with a big mouth. I was showing off a lot of erudition I didn't have. I was ---"

"You were not! How can you talk that way? Frank, has it gotten so bad that you've lost all belief in yourself?"

Well, no; he had to admit it hadn't gotten quite that bad. Besides, he was afraid he could detect a note of honest doubt in her voice -- a faint suggestion that it might be possible to persuade her that he had been a little wise guy after all -- and this was distressing.

I don't know quite how you would communicate all that in a movie, or a pair of performances.

Bailey wrote in his 2007 Salon piece:

Were Yates alive to advise Mendes, I daresay he'd insist that the movie begin, as the novel does, with April's mortifyingly awful performance in an amateur production of "The Petrified Forest." In other words, the Wheelers' doom should never be in doubt because they can't help being themselves. "When the curtain fell at last," Yates wrote, at the end of one of the most excruciating scenes in American literature, "it was an act of mercy."

The scene is in the movie, near the beginning, but we don't feel the panic, the flop-sweat or the tediousness of a bad performance. It doesn't feel excruciating. Later scenes, when the characters are staging dramatic confrontations at home as if they were amateur productions, are, but perhaps not precisely as the film intends. It's hard to tell.

* * * *

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Michael Shannon's Academy nomination for "Revolutionary Road" is one of the most gratifying in this year's Oscar batch. He's magnificent as John Givings, the mentally unstable son of Kathy Bates' real estate agent. Wood beautifully describes how this character functions to illuminate the book:

Wasn't this, he asked, a beautifully typical story of these times and this place? A man could rant and smash and grapple with the State Police, and still the sprinklers whirled at dusk on every lawn and the television droned in every living room. . . . "Call the Troopers, get him out of sight quick, hustle him off and lock him up before he wakes the neighbors. . . . It's as if everybody's made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception."

Does the movie? I don't think that it does, or know that it can. McCarthy writes that "film is incapable of capturing" that "prismatic" quality Wood describes in Yates' prose:

In the film, it appears Frank makes his move on an almost arbitrary impulse, and he's made to look bad in the typically chauvinistic way he uses his superior position to seduce a powerless young woman. On the page, the two already have a history marked by a long mutual flirtation, and Maureen is described as sexier and less frumpy than the woman who turns up onscreen. Frank may be a cad either way, but in the novel, his cheating involves an array of ambiguous feelings on both sides -- anticipation, hesitation, delight, remorse, Frank's subsequent temptation to confess -- while in the film it registers only one meaning: naughty boy.

It's delusory to criticize a film for not being a book, or a dance for not being a painting. Even when one is an "adaptation" of another, they are separate works by different artists, and each form has unique properties and capabilities. I took the time to write this because of my love of the book, not out of some "hatred" for the movie, which I didn't hate. I guess you could just say I found it reductive. ("Phil thought it was flawed.") In my view, it reduced aspects of the novel without finding significant ways of enhancing it in other dimensions (direction, performance).

Here, perhaps, is an illustration of the challenge in adapting a work like "Revolutionary Road." (I'm going to write about the very ending now.) Yates concludes his novel with Mrs. Givings going on and on about the Wheelers to her husband:

"It's just that they were a rather strange young couple. Irresponsible. The guarded way they'd look at you; the way they'd talk to you; unwholesome, sort of. Do you know what I came across in the cellar? All dead and dried out? I came across an enormous box of sedum plantings that I must have spent an entire day collecting for them last spring. I remember very carefully selecting the best shoots and very tenderly packing them in just the right kind of soil -- that's the kind of thing I mean, you see. Wouldn't you think that when someone goes to a certain amount of trouble to give you a perfectly good plant, a living, growing thing, wouldn't you think the very least you'd do would be to ---"

But from there on Howard Givings heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.

Mrs. Givings' monologue is callous and irritating and petty (even monstrous in some respects, given the context), yet you also sense the power the Wheelers had over her, the way they made her feel uncomfortable, unworthy, insulted. They hurt her feelings. You can decide for yourself how much of that comes across in the movie, but here's what doesn't: the past-tense in the last sentence. In the film, we see Howard Givings turn down his hearing aid, and the film's sound drops with it. Fade to black. The subtlety of the inexact timing is missing. The effect is not the same.

How could it be?

P.S. From a NY Times Book Review essay by novelist Richard Ford that I just now read for the first time, and that brought tears to my eyes:

The story line of "Revolutionary Road" can be summarized succinctly:

In the spring and summer of 1955, in the western Connecticut bedroom community of Revolutionary Hill Estates, the lives of the young Wheeler family -- April, Frank and two minor children -- become essentially and violently unglued, never ever to be as they were. [...]

There are moments in reading "Revolutionary Road" when I'm made to wonder exactly which human qualities its author would finally sponsor as both virtuous and practicable. What would prove adequate to hold the fabric together long enough to get through life in one acceptable piece? Clearly something more's required than the standard livelihood protocols - the train, the office, advancement, collegiality - since all lead to other postures of controlled collapse. Marriage qua marriage is also plainly not adequate. Likewise parenting. Paris -- the old, fragrant dream of freedom -- seems out of reach.

Clearly some more straitened form of life is required, one in which what we say strictly corresponds to what we mean. We also might not care to ask very much of others. And there might not be that much fun around. Indeed, Yates's dark humor seems calculated less to please us than, as with any satire, to soften us up for the sterner truths.

And there's no escaping stern truth here. But goodness knows there's so much along the way to like and admire that, stern truths or no, you're sorry when it's over -- sorry in more ways than one. Mostly "Revolutionary Road" is just so smart and keen and shockingly inventive about everything it turns its imagination to: about being young and blissfully rudderless in New York City before the responsibilities of marriage and family cloud the sky; about entertaining the awful neighbors; about long, long business lunches; about being 30 and feeling middle-aged; about fearing change when you know change is likely to save you; even about the pink light seen through a poor man's earlobe, palely summing up all of humanity's frailty and failure...

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