I learned about Pablo Neruda from the Simpsons in an episode where Bart sells his soul. I learned about classic film, scientific theories and television history from them as well. The Simpsons led me to consume better art and comedy. It may be the easiest pop culture touchstone to praise. The first time I heard the classic Rolling Stone tune Loving Cup or the Talking Heads Crosseyed and Painless, or Frank Zappa’s Peaches en Regalia was at a Phish show. Yes, I went to Phish shows (I know, I know) which were a huge part of my musical education. I am sure I will not make any new points about the way we learn about art, but it is worth remembering how we come to learn about the art we love.
The 2002 film Adaptation is a exactly that, a film version of Susan Orlean’s Orchid Thief (1998). The book, itself an exploration of a long piece written for the New Yorker, focuses on the orchid trade, legal and illegal, and it’s history with the irascible John Laroche at it’s center. Orlean is the orbiting planet to Laroche’s Sun. Her book and her mind are open to the wonder of an industry with as much intrigue and espionage as a John Le Carre book if you spaced it out over 200 years. Her book is well paced and well written and worthy of all the accolades it received, but the movie is what I saw first.
Adaptation pays tribute to the book, but creates a self aware bastardization. It is a story about being unsure how to tell a story. The screenwriter, all the rage for 5 years, was Charlie Kaufman. He split himself in two and gave life to fictitious twin in his credits. He wrote himself into his film, just as Orlean wrote herself into her book. On the screen, Nic Cage hacks his way through the two roles, Kaufman the doubt plagued nebbish and Kaufman’s twin Donald, the drifting idiot as budding screenwriter. Donald is all of the sunny, happy things that Charlie Kaufman wishes he could be, but his life as a tortured genius causes endless misery.
Adaptation becomes a wild romp. Spoiler Alert: Kaufman ends up decrying the need for action and fantasy (though Orlean certainly sexies up the orchid trade) and then gives us all that our deviant hearts desire. Sex, drugs, and a car chase end up capping off the Kaufman version. All of the quietness of Orleans world shatters, with Kaufman and Orlean at it’s center. It is worth remembering Leonardo da Vinci’s dictum (recently cited in this Hyperallergic piece on Arthur Danto), ogni dipintore dipinge se (“every painter paints himself”). The ouroboros moment (the concept is introduced earlier when Donald mentions his film treatment featuring a serial killer with multiple personalities) has the authors interacting, not at a polite lunch as we first see them, but in a swamp as adversaries.
I would tell you all this about a good book and very good movie to make a point about how we get our art. I knew about Orlean’s book, which I have just finished in 2015, because of the film I saw back when it was released in 2002. Time and opportunity was on the film’s side. Just the way the Simpsons led me to Neruda or Phish to, well, better music.
-Jeff Bergman April 2015